Mecca: The sacred city
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THE city of Mecca - the birthplace of Muhammad; the direction
for prayer for 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide five times daily; and
the site for haj (pilgrimage) for three million pilgrims annually -
is the heart of the Islamic faith.
Drawing on his own experiences of pilgrimage and his years
working at the Hajj Research Centre in Mecca, the writer and
broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar traces the city's history from the
paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia to the seizure of the Grand Mosque
by militants in November 1979. Judiciously, not hagiographically,
he describes in detail Mecca during the time of Muhammad, and how,
after Muhammad's death in 632 CE, the city underwent a "long steady
decline into a sleepy backwater".
Using the accounts of early Muslim visitors to Mecca, such as
the 14th-century Tunisian explorer Ibn Battuta, Sardar considers
the city's development, politically, socially, and architecturally,
under the Mameluk and Ottoman Empires.
Reference is made to European travellers in the 19th century,
"the explorer-spies", such as the Englishmen Burton and Doughty,
and Burckhardt, the Swiss explorer, who, either disguised as
Muslims or feigning conversion to Islam, visited the holy site.
The book describes the arrival of Wahhabism in the 18th century,
a strict puritannical sect that banned music and demanded strict
gender segregation in public and compulsory attendance at the five
daily prayers - requirements strictly enforced by mutawa
(religious police) at that time and today, in Saudi Arabia.
Sardar writes of two different Meccas: the "idealized, almost
idolized, Mecca" and "the other Mecca, the city where history has
been lived". He decries the dangerous herding of pilgrims "like
cattle"; the pollution from car fumes; and the influence of
oil-wealth in replacing old Mecca with "ugly high-rise buildings
and shopping malls", transforming the city into a "playground for
Particular criticism is for Wahhabi fanatics, who, fearing undue
veneration of sacred sites, have carried out extensive demolition
of historical buildings in Mecca.
This book, informative and likely to cause controversy, offers a
unique insight into one of the most important religious sites in
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a lecturer and writer on Islam,
and serves as a Methodist lay preacher.