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Mecca unvarnished

28 November 2014

Simon Ross Valentine reads a critical history of the city that is the lifetime destination of all Muslim believers

North Africans on the haj: by Safi ibn Vali, The Pilgrim's Companion (17th century). In the book

North Africans on the haj: by Safi ibn Vali, The Pilgrim's Companion (17th century). In the book

Mecca: The sacred city
Ziauddin Sardar
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT292 )

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 the rich".

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 the world.

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a lecturer and writer on Islam, and serves as a Methodist lay preacher.


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