THE CITIES of Mecca and Medina, sacred to Muslims and barred to non-Muslims,
are under threat, warns the Gulf Institute. The Institute, which is based in
the United States, reports that in the past two decades 95 per cent of the most
ancient buildings in the cities have been demolished, with the permission of
the Saudi authorities (
Comment, 19 August).
The bulldozed sites are said to include the house of Ali-Oraid (the grandson
of Muhammad), as well as villages once inhabited by Jews (who are not permitted
now to worship or settle in Saudi Arabia). Ancient sites that remain include
the birthplace of Muhammad, but it, too, is marked for destruction. Dr Sami
Angawi, the founder of the Haj Research Centre, has said: "This is the end of
history in Mecca and Medina and the end of their future" (
The Independent, 6 August).
Commentators identify both pragmatic and theological reasons for this
seeming disregard of history. The annual pilgrimage to the two cities, which
now involves four million people annually, is expected to grow five-fold in the
coming years. In expectation of this, the Saudi government is investing about
US$13 billion on building projects.
The most impressive of these is the Jabal Omar scheme, which will cover a
230,000-square-yard area next to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and include two
50-storey hotel towers and seven 35-storey apartment blocks. Such projects are
clearly lucrative for developers, but Dr Angawi laments: "Mecca should be the
reflection of the multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking lot."
Even though many pilgrims might be attracted to visit Muhammad's birthplace
and other sites, there is also a theological reason for the destruction. The
Gulf Institute reports that a senior council of Saudi religious scholars issued
a fatwa, or judicial opinion, in 1994, to the effect that preserving historical
sites could lead to idolatry. Worshippers might focus on buildings rather than
This fatwa provided a window into the relationship between the ruling House
of Saud and religious scholars in the country. Dr Aslam Abdullah wrote on the
Islamicity website (an influential modernist site based in California) of how "
Saudi monarchy has developed a strong alliance with the religious hierarchy of
Saudi Arabia." In return for the monarchy giving carte blanche to religious
authorities to push a conservative Wahhabi agenda, religious scholars do not
challenge the Saudi royal family's construction plans.
THE POLICY has triggered heated debate, and opposition to the demolitions
has come from diverse Muslim sources. Criticism has appeared on websites
maintained by Islamic activist groups, such as Islamicity and the Muslim Public
Affairs Council (UK).
On the Islamicity site, almost equal numbers were in favour of and opposed
to the demolitions. One writer commented: "Anything we will do in our lives has
to conform with the Islamic Teachings, period. Improving our lives by having
new and viable structures for shelter is one of those things that Islam does
not go against."
Another contributor was critical of Dr Abdullah's rejection of Saudi policy:
"I see this author as being ignorant of Islam and . . . like the kuffars
[infidels] in attaching themselves to meaningless objects, rather than solving
the problems of Muslims."
Muslim opponents of Saudi policy were equally outspoken, however. One
declared: "The historical places of Islam should be preserved for the future
generations, specially the house of our prophet."
THE DEBATE has a broader context in Islam. The conservative revolution in
the Arabian peninsula, led by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, father of the Wahhabi
movement in the late 1700s, included among its goals eradicating visits to
saints' tombs. Muslim communities in places as diverse as Indonesia, India, and
Arabia had long attributed sainthood to influential scholars after death. It
became commonplace to seek blessing at the tombs of these saints, and to leave
When conservative Wahhabi thinking spread beyond Arabia, destruction of
saints' tombs became a favourite preoccupation of conservative extremist
groups, who called Muslims to focus their attention on God rather than graves
and buildings. There was a case of this in northern Iraq in recent years
(Comment, 3 January 2003).
There are echoes of such concerns in other religious contexts. The Taliban's
destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan in 2000 was motivated by a
belief that they might deflect the attention of Muslims from the unseen God. In
the Christian tradition, iconoclasts called for the destruction of religious
Nevertheless, there seems to be some hypocrisy in the contrast between the
Saudi authorities' repeated statements of concern about the sacred Muslim sites
in Jerusalem, and their disregard for sites in Mecca. Furthermore, the Islamic
authorties have provided no evidence that the sites being destroyed in Arabia
actually lead Muslims away from God - hence the outcry of Muslims worldwide,
both specialists and lay people.
Concern over the demolition policy is also finding expression in Christian
circles. One Christian contributor to an internet chat line commented: "Even I,
a kuffar [sic], would like to see Muhammad's birth house preserved, as it is a
world heritage site and protected by UNESCO, not torn down by barbarians."
Peter G. Riddell is Professor and Director of the Centre for Islamic
Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at London School of Theology, and the
author of Christians and Muslims: Pressures and potential in a post-9/11
world (IVP, 2004).