Sacred & scarred

Believers beware! Here’s a book which read you must. But be sure to tighten your seat belts, keep your air sickness bags handy. For the journey you must embark on — its destination Mecca, after all — is bumpy, full of nasty air-pockets, treacherous, often nauseous.
Also be prepared for landing with a rude jolt, seriously “jet-lagged”. With Ziauddin Sardar in the pilot’s seat, expect the path less travelled.

Mecca is the ultimate destination for the followers of Islam, a religion that stands on five pillars. Haj is one of them: a once in a life time pilgrimage to Mecca, if you can afford it. Not all Muslims can. But for all believers it remains the most cherished dream, the longed-for ultimate destination.

Wherever on earth they may be, Muslims must face the Kaaba (in Mecca) for namaaz, five times daily. To commune with Allah, you orient yourself to his Abode. Mecca is the Muslims’ moral compass. As for actually being in the holy city, that’s pure bliss!

But in Sardar’s book, Mecca: The Sacred City, the Happy, Holy Haj is only the take-off point. The rest is not about Mecca, the sacred metaphor. It’s about the profanities of the people of Mecca and Arabia, past and present.

Mecca was a place of pilgrimage, haj, for pagan Arabs even before the birth of Islam. For the clans who managed and controlled the holy place, piety and profit went hand-in-hand. Mecca was prosperous but the class divide was sharp. Islam’s message of radical, egalitarian social reform enjoining fair treatment of slaves, orphans, women and the poor, appealed mostly to the city’s “wretched of the earth”. But it was greeted with such hostility by the elite that the Prophet had to migrate to Yathrib (renamed Medina) with his small band of followers.

Eight years later, he made a bloodless but triumphant return to Mecca as the head of a large army of the faithful. Kaaba’s status as the “Abode of Allah” was restored, most residents of the city, including the worst enemies of the Prophet, converted to Islam. Immediately thereafter, Prophet Mohammad went right back to Medina, “not just the capital but the cultural and intellectual centre of the emerging Muslim state”.

Two years later, Prophet Mohammad made his first and last pilgrimage to Mecca. There, in his famous last sermon, among other things, the Prophet told the assembly: “O people… All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; (none have superiority over another) except by piety and good action… You will neither inflict nor suffer any inequity…”

Soon thereafter, the Prophet breathed his last. Sadly, his message of inclusiveness, equality, fraternity, tolerance was lost on the Muslim elite of Mecca and Arabia.

The supremacism is intriguing. Never in the entire history of Islam was Mecca the capital for any caliph. (The Prophet himself preferred Medina.). In the “Golden Age” of Islam, its seats of power were Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordoba, Granada; anywhere but Mecca.
In consequence

Over the centuries Mecca did see good days. But in between there were indignities and atrocities aplenty: Muslims looting Muslims, political intrigue, sectarian violence, mutual slaughter, in and around Mecca, even inside the compound of the Kaaba.

Then there was, and is, the supremacism of the Meccan and Arabs. For over a thousand years of Islamic history, caliph after caliph’s claim to fame lay in tracing his lineage to the Quraish of Mecca, if not blood ties to the family of the Prophet himself. Arabia is the only country in the world that is named after a particular tribe, the Saud. To the people of Saudi Arabia, Arabs were and are superior to non-Arabs; blacks are right at the bottom of the ladder. Saudi Arabia was among the last countries in the world to ban slavery. Even today “Mecca is a place riddled with racism, bigotry and xenophobia,” Sardar observes.

The supremacism is intriguing. Never in the entire history of Islam was Mecca the capital for any caliph. (The Prophet himself preferred Medina.). In the “Golden Age” of Islam, its seats of power were Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordoba, Granada; anywhere but Mecca.

In consequence, “The great ideas and achievements, science and learning, art and culture, of Muslim civilization were seldom embraced in Mecca… When it came to ideas, Meccan scholars tended to be conservative, and their influence, such as it was, operated to constrain and denounce, rather than motivate intellectual and cultural endeavours”.

What’s more, the rot had set in early, “It was the first generation of Muslims, known as the ‘Companions of the Prophet’, who started the internecine conflict over the meaning, interpretation and implementation of religion. It was these same companions who initiated the power struggles for control of what in short order became an imperialist project. How benign can an empire be?” To many Muslims this might seem close to blasphemy. Go tell that to Ziauddin Sardar.

Perhaps the mutually beneficial late-18th-century pact between the fanatical Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the uncouth Saud tribe was only a logical culmination of the Meccan’s long-standing hostility to rational thought. In a society hostile to all knowledge and wisdom except the wily realisation of the relationship between piety, profit and power, what else might one expect but a crass consumerist culture infested with “abominable ideologies” preaching “indiscriminate slaughter”.

In an orgy of Wahhabism’s manic monotheism, all traces of Islam’s heritage in the place of its birth have been ruthlessly erased through the decades. Over the grave in Mecca of the first wife of the Prophet, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, there are toilets now. “Apart from the Kaaba and the Sacred Mosque… there are no monuments, no relics, no culture, no art, and no architecture worthy of the name”.

In his closing chapter Sardar predicts: “It seems only a matter of time before the house where the Prophet Mohammed was born (in Mecca) is razed to the ground and turned, probably, into a car park.”

Newspapers reported last week that a Saudi scholar has suggested the demolition of the tomb of the Prophet in the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina and the removal of his remains to an unmarked spot in a nearby cemetery. If the tomb in Medina is dug up, the house where the Prophet was born will soon follow. Oh, Mecca!

(This article was first published in The Asian Age on September 21, 2014)





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