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Mecca: The Sacred City

Ziauddin Sardar

Bloomsbury India

Pages: 363 Rs. 599

History teaches us that we seldom learn from history

Ziauddin Sardar spent five years in Mecca at the Hajj Research Centre, and the result is a thorough and very troubling document that investigates the workings of this ancient city, writes Omair Ahmad.

OMAIR AHMAD  28th Feb 2015

Ziauddin Sardar.

n his book on Mecca, Ziauddin Sardar is trying to tell two stories: the major one is a history of the city in Saudi Arabia in the context of great changes; the second one is an explanation of why the current rulers of Saudi Arabia are so horrible. There are few authors better placed to write such a book. Sardar's truly excellent Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim, published in 2004, was not only a runaway bestseller, but its deeply informed, self-deprecatingly humorous style established Sardar as one of the more profound thinkers on religion and society in the modern world. This style does not always work: his tiresome Balti Britain, on the South Asian experience in England is a glaring eyesore of an example.

Nevertheless, few people can claim, as he can, to have worked at the Hajj Research Centre in Mecca for five years, closely inspecting the details of the city, and the needs and constraints of the pilgrims. In fact in November 1979 when a band of ultra-orthodox Arabs took over the Kaaba complex with the help of concealed automatic weapons, it was the detailed structural plans provided by the Hajj Research Centre that helped the Saudi government finally figure out where the rebels were hiding, and how they could be flushed out — with the alleged expertise of the French.

A city critically dependent on pilgrims will inevitably have inhabitants that believe that they are the centre of the world, and special because much of the world wishes to travel to their home. At the same time Mecca had little control over its own future, as the rulers of larger empires always managed to control it from the time of Mohammed onward.

Sardar has made it his business not only to read, but also to experience the environment that he is talking about at a granular level. This makes his history of Mecca under its various rulers deeply satisfying to read, although also deeply disturbing. The takeover of Kaaba in 1979 was hardly the first time that violence stepped into the city. In fact, as Sardar delineates the long history of the city, it seems that the two elements of greed and violence intertwine almost constantly, with an added element of extremist piety from time to time. The series of betrayals, murders and torture is almost non-stop, with a momentary relief when the stable, sane and relatively decent ruler occupying the post of "sharif" — a post equivalent to ruler of the city and sanctified through descent from the Prophet's bloodline — for the shortest of times. The Mongols destroy the civilised world, the Ottomans extend their empire, Mansa Musa of Timbuktu arrives with enough gold that itdevalues the price of gold around the world, but Mecca's internecine quarrels for power and wealth continue almost uninterrupted. People are poisoned, stabbed, crucified, beheaded, or merely killed in battle. The Kaaba itself is bombarded, proving yet again the banal truth that Muslims have committed far more crimes against Muslims than the rest of the world combined.

art of the reason this may seem so stark is that Mecca wasa pilgrimage city since well before the time of Mohammed and his message, but it is a city that does not produce much. A city critically dependent on pilgrims will inevitably have inhabitants that believe that they are the centre of the world, and special because much of the world wishes to travel to their home. At the same time Mecca had little control over its own future, as the rulers of larger empires always managed to control it from the time of Mohammed onward. A politically insignificant city, which is at the same time the lodestone of faith and thus showered with riches, creates a very warped political order. Sardar brings this out perfectly.

However, when he delves into the Saudi takeover of the Arabian peninsula, and the rise of the ideas of the 18th Century theologian, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, Sardar decides that context is irrelevant. While Sardar describes the rise and success of the alliance between the families of Muhammad ibn Saud and ibn Abd al Wahhab and condemns both as illiterate extremists, he suggests no reason except possibly military power for their success. This is disingenuous. Abd al Wahhab was a scholar of the Hanbali school of thought, and was critically influenced by ibn Taymiyyah, a renowned 14th Century puritanical scholar who laid the foundations of a particular brand of fundamentalist thought — in the sense of going back to the fundamentals of Islamic teaching. This is a far wider ideology than that practiced or promoted by the Saudi state, condemning it is not enough to understand it, especially for people like Sardar who would like to combat it. Like many other critics of "Wahhabism", Sardar simply ignores that it is a part of a wider phenomenon than just a few extremists, and thus much harder to address. In fact Sardar's detailed report on how the Saudi state has destroyed much of historical Mecca and changed it into a Las Vegas-style city provides the ideal context in which extremist ideologies would rise. Which all goes to prove that you may be deeply well-read and extremely intelligent but you still will not see what you do not wish to see.

 
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