Say a little prayer for Mecca: Are the Saudis trying to whitewash their history?

Published November 8th, 2012 - 03:53 GMT
Mecca goes to Vegas: the movie, or construction campaign, you didn't order
Mecca goes to Vegas: the movie, or construction campaign, you didn't order

A fortnight ago the Independent reported on the latest phenomenon that is transforming the desert cradle of Islam from traditional pilgrim site to a modern “mecca” for the rich. The vaunted 'two' seats of religious worship at Mecca and Medina (Islam’s supreme holy sites) risk devolving from spiritual landmarks for weary pilgrims to global haunts for religious holidaymakers.

There are many schools of thought (and conspiracy theories) about what is really going on here. Saudi – already a wealthy oil state – could be hankering for more Moolah (while its oil reserves may one day run dry Islam is, presumably, here for the long haul and pilgrimages are not about to go out of fashion.) Religious tourism is the sole kind the Kingdom caters to – spurning non-Muslim visitors to the hallowed halls of Mecca-dina, and moreover not granting visitor visas Kingdom-wide except in the most exception circumstances.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) insists that the extreme structural changes afoot at Mecca and Medina are part of a dedicated drive to develop infrastructure in support of the predicted exponential increase in pilgrims to the holy sites. It doesn’t take a religious fanatic or pilgrim to express concern that the original unspoilt terrain of the pilgrim sites is being interfered with and adulterated. Doesn’t the medieval heritage of Arabia warrant special care and preservation, just like what happens in other countries? Would anyone stand for Jesus’s birthplace or indeed Greece’s Parthenon being mucked about (or lifted and relocated, as per the British experience of the Elgin marbles)? Apart from archaeological concerns surrounding the preservation of ancient ruins, some opponents of the government’s program to make space for pilgrims include those bringing the ideology of the reigning family al-Saud into play. 

Wahabi religious policy, sponsored by the Kingdom, discourages worship at Islam’s holiest sites, ironically enough since the country deems itself the birthplace of Islam and gatekeeper of the Hajj- a sort of mechanical set of practices which is an article of the Muslim faith. The official leaders with their puritanical creed find some of the rituals which have flowered alongside the vaunted Hajj pilgrimage over the centuries—such as prostrations at the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed—to be a bit disconcerting.  While they may not eschew the money brought in from the yearly influx of Muslims in ascetic garb, Wahabism certainly rejects innovations and impurities believed to have corrupted Islam or approximate idolatry and could promote polytheism.  With these being their prime worries, there is nothing to stop the Saudi princelings from turning some rusty territory in the Hejaz mountains into a pale reflection of that other “mecca”—Las Vegas.

Severed roots 

Since their own obtuse and narrow religious sensibilities will not be offended by this, the princelings of the Najdi Kingdom will move on to enjoy the view—who could say no to a view of a formerly pagan, now Islamic shine from the balcony of a tee-total seven-star hotel? If a few old relics have to be lost to bulldozers in the process, so be it. It is a rather odd approach to faith. When the Wahhabis, who later would give birth to the Saudi state as it stands today, got wind that worshippers would seek to pray underneath a tree under which the Prophet sought shade centuries, the desert-dwellers became lumberjacks. Instead of trees today, visitors to the Hejaz valley where Mecca and Medina lie, can now seek shade and pray at the altar of capitalism—at one of the new shopping malls springing up there.

In a way, it has an odd resonance. While venerated from afar, and pictures of the Kaaba adorn Muslim households’ walls all over the globe, the shrine has faced a slew of indignities over the years. One early Umayyad ruler even attacked it with a catapult. More recently, Saudi authorities relied on French commandos to neutralize Saudi rebels who had gathered in the shrine. It seems that the cubist building had its best days back when it was a site of offerings for the pagan gods of Arab tribes.

While charged with being the custodians of Islam’s first and second holy sites, the Saudis are arguably abusing their duty of care by bulldozing rather than care-taking. Not quite the way we expect a holy land to be treated. Their so-called expansion bid in the name of comfort for the pilgrims, sabotages the worship sites and ancient artifacts which include houses belonging to the Prophet and family members. Is there more to the story of a commercial takeover at stake here?

A Moroccan tweep, Abo Barakat Arifi, (@aborifi) unravels another potential twist to the tale of 'operation revamp the Hajj.' He protests the demolitions and reminds us that worship does not need towers, malls or the Bin Laden group—the biggest name in construction (and particularly Mecca projects) for the Kingdom. He presents a single vested interest powering the bulldozers: personal growth for the first family. Land grabbing is something that may strike a chord with the average Arab griping about the Zionist entity, but also could have a context in Saudi.  

The Kingdom versus a democratic Muslim inheritance

The stealthy al Saud plot, according to this source, seeks to remove any legal claim to the sacred land stemming from religious heritage. There is an identity war at play between royals and Muslims who have inherited plots of land by virtue of the Islamic property practice of 'Waqf'.  Awqaaf (plural) generate trillions in revenue (that belongs to the pilgrims). Documents testify that the land in the proximity of Mecca is majority public-owned, ‘Muslim property’. Historically, alottments were apportioned and quotas assigned for pilgrims from each country. Distribution of land went hand in hand with the democratic ideal of equality for all Muslims, as nurtured by the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH).

The Moroccan's quibble with the Saudi expansion is that the pilgrim needs have already been met by multi-level storey decks for worshippers. He argues that any other vertical expansion (as skyscapers) stems from greed not need.
This Mecca mutineer suggests a current of subversive Saud-ization at play. The most powerful Saudi family would like to reclaim land from the Muslim masses to add to the Kingdom’s desert acres and oil wells, he alleges. So be it if a religious heritage is being erased to realize their Mecca resort.

Saudi can bank on scant interference from the outside world. Western archaelogists – provided not Muslim - are conveniently banned from entering the holy sites. Fellow Muslim nations have too much to lose if they object since Saudi holds the pilgrim card-  to admit or deny supplicants by country.

The missing link

The Grand Mosque expansion typifies the movement afoot to whitewash the desert's history. Hejazi landmarks are fair game as this further eradicates the Arab link to the Prophet, and popular claims to Arabian heritage. Saudi can then dispense with the burden of Jordanians, for example, who hailed from western Arabia. In the name of the mosque extension, other structures must go to make way for the Muslim masses. Among the debris could be the house where the Prophet was born.  The inflamed Muslim tweep argues that crowd control should focus on sites outside the Mecca-Medina beaten track: more apt would be the trampled settings of Arafat, Mina and Musdelifa, where pilgrims linger and jostle for space. The expansion campaign has been distinctly absent from these spots where worshippers congregate, instead, focusing exclusively on Medina-Mecca proper. Yet Mecca, where Muslims mill about most, at the Kabbah, has been relieved by platforms. So at least for the dissenting tweep, the problem has been solved and the construction workers can retire for a long lunch.

Abo Barakat Arifi believes that the expansion of the haram is a pretext to override this land given up freely to pilgrims. Playing detective, the marauding Moroccan with the Saudi scoop finds it interesting that a lot of the demolitions of Muslim-designated land containing  tombs, mausoleums, mosques do not cause a flinch, and wonders whether royal holdings fare the same. Yet he needn't look far from the Grand Mosque to spy the site of a palace, easily suited for expansion of the great haram. This royal property stands unscathed among a shifting landscape.  Google earth will testify to this lone surviving edifice, he adds, as modern evidence for a very state-of-the-art encroachment.

Have your say! What's really going on in Saudi Arabia? Are Islam's caretakers trying to whitewash history? Is 'Greater Mecca' the product of Saudi's assault on the ancient democratization of Islam? 



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