The Hajj, the performance of the Islamic pilgrimage in the precincts of Mecca, coincides with the festival of ‘Eid ul-Adha. This is a festival that is celebrated globally by all Muslims who are not on the Hajj.
So for 1, 5 billion Muslims worldwide, there is a simultaneous convergence of devotional focus.
Whilst 3 million gather on the plain of ‘Arafat outside Mecca in a purified state, followed by rituals laid down by the prophets Abraham and Muhammad, the rest of the community enjoys a family day.
‘Eid ul-Adha – literally meaning “joyful sacrifice” – commemorates Abraham being asked to sacrifice his first-born son, and a ram being substituted in his place. The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is translated as “sacred journey”.
In the digital age that we live in, the Hajj is followed step-by-step via cable TV, and even Facebook. It enjoys a “World Cup” audience of millions, making it now one of the most-watched annual events on the planet.
With the accessibility of our age has also come the ease of air-travel, and in the 21st century, the Saudi Arabian authorities have had to restrict numbers. The demographics of the Hajj is that demand far outstrips supply.
The plains of ‘Arafat and Mina, which are the terrain of the Hajj, can only accommodate up to 3 million pilgrims. And haunted by the memory of deadly stampedes, the Saudi kingdom has embarked upon an ambitious re-development programme costing billions of dollars.
This will see Mecca becoming one of the most modern cities in the world. By 2012, the Saudis want to cater for 10 million pilgrims with 130 high-rise hotels, rail shuttles and state-of-the-art shopping centres.
Part of Mecca’s urban re-shaping involves a giant clock being constructed atop a 76-story hotel. This clock, which will also denote prayer times, will be visible from 17 kilometres.
According to Arab News, the clock is response to a scholarly gathering in Doha in 2008. It agreed that Mecca should be the meridian of the Muslim world. This was based on the observation that if one spread-out the world map, Mecca would emerge as its physical centre.
With Mecca’s clock-face being 80 metres in height and 65 metres wide, it is many times bigger than London’s Big Ben. Sitting atop a 500 metre building in a dizzy amphitheatre of six other 40-story buildings, it’s the biggest and highest clock in the world.
However, whilst Mecca’s space-age developments may dazzle the eye, in the Muslim world there is a sense of great disquiet; a sense of disquiet made only worse by the startling silence of Muslim governments on what has happened to Islam’s holy places in the name of progress.
Many analysts feel that whilst change has been necessary in Mecca, it should not have occurred at the expense of the city’s sacred memory. For behind the façade of Saudi modernism and materialism lurks one of the biggest scandals of the modern era – the wanton and wilful destruction of Islamic heritage.
Mainstream scholars, such as Cape Town’s Shaikh Seraj Hendricks, have observed that Islam has been held to ransom by the whims of Saudi’s puritanical Wahhabi scholars, who deem the honour of historical sites as polytheistic.
For them heritage is something that you destroy, because in their jaundiced eyes, people worship the sites.
These, incidentally, are the militant scholars who applauded the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and whose chief mufti, the late Shaikh Bin Baz, once ruled that the earth was flat
These scholars, whose obscurantist credo was founded in the desert over 200 years ago by the arch-extremist Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, have been accused of destroying Islam’s cultural heritage in the very heartland of Islam.
This is the equivalent of the church bulldozing the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem because pilgrims might worship its stones. Or the Rabbis dynamiting the tomb of Maimonides in Tiberias.
The Washington-based Gulf Institute records that in two-decades the Saudi government has countenanced the destruction of 95% of Islam’s historical buildings, tombs and wells – most of them relating directly to the life of the prophet Muhammad.
Dr Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect, says today that less than 20 of 300 historical sites remain in Saudi Arabia. He told The Independent that we were witnessing the “last days” of Mecca.
Dr ‘Irfan Ahmad al-‘Alawi, founder and former director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, is a London-based barrister who owns a house in Mecca. As a descendant of the house of Muhammad, he reckons that less than 10% of Mecca’s heritage remains, and soon even that will be gone.
He points to the desacralisation of Mecca. In the 1980’s the monarchy constructed a palace on Jabl Qubais, a mountain overlooking the holy city where the prophet Muhammad performed the miracle of the splitting moon, and where Adam is believed to lie buried.
“In the 1990’s they built a toilet over the foundations of a house belonging to the prophet’s first wife, Khadijah. This is where a prophet of God prayed, where his children were born,” he noted, adding that Islam’s first school – and the house of the prophet’s best friend, Abu Bakr, had been demolished for the Hilton Hotel.
“It is incredible how little respect is paid by the Saudis to the house of God,” he said.
In 2004 the old Turkish fort in the Al-Ajyad district was demolished to make way for another hotel, an enraged Turkish government describing the demolition as “cultural genocide”.
Even the waters of Zamzam – the well discovered by Ishmael’s Egyptian mother, Hajira – have been affected. Dr Alawi reports that builders blasting rock damaged and cracked the eye of the 3, 000 year old well.
Dr ‘Alawi notes that the birthplace of Muhammad (used as a cattle market by the Wahhabis in the 1920’s) is another victim.
“In any other religion, this would be a sacred site like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but here it’s destroyed.”
“Even the ground of the historical Jannat ul-Mu’alla graveyard, where the prophet’s wife is buried, is now awash in sewage due to poor town planning,” he said.
Denial from Saudi quarters has been adamant.
Prince Turki al-Faisal was quoted as saying by The Independent in 2006 that Saudi Arabia would preserve its historical sites.
“[We are aware] how important the preservation of this heritage is, not just to us but to the millions of Muslims from around the world ….It is hardly something we are going to allow to be destroyed,” he told reporter Daniel Howden.
Unfortunately, his rebuttal sits at odds with reality. Future generations of Muslims visiting Mecca will face an ugly urban landscape totally devoid of history.