Book: Mecca: The Sacred City
Bloomsbury India 2014
This book is about Mecca - birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and also of Islam.
To fathom how much Mecca matters to Muslims is indeed an uphill task for many non-Muslims. Few years ago, when I visited Kolkata airport to see off my Haj-bound father - I was truly amazed to see the excitement among Hajjis and well-wishers. The airport had witnessed a virtual coup by Hajjis and the atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement was a reflection of collective joy and communitarian solidarity.
A majority of Hajjis, who were otherwise given training on how to perform Haj, perhaps, had little knowledge about the history of Mecca. This book thus is a much needed one - and its translations in Urdu and other vernacular languages will facilitate further dissemination of the knowledge about this great city.
The author was born in Pakistan though currently based in London. A list of dozens of books on Islam and Muslim politics that he has written over the years appears at the outset. On diverse themes, they include one on why people hate America and a no-nonsense guide to Islam. While a book on Mecca is expected from this author, you wonder why he took such a long time - almost four decades after his first visit to Mecca, on 16 December 1975.
While the book has rich historical content, it should not be endorsed as a work of pure historiography. It draws insights from disciplines like politics, international relations, war history, a bit of anthropology and the history of religion, among others. Indeed, it should be seen as an inter-disciplinary work.
"Mecca is not just a symbol, the encapsulation of aspirations; it is and has always been a place where people lived amidst all the flattering manmade vicissitudes that constitute history," the author writes.
What is the key objective? According to the author, the goal is not about idealised Mecca. Instead, it is about its idealisation. It is about the neglected space of Mecca, where lives were lived, heroes and villains thrived, atrocities were committed; and greed and intolerance were the norm. Cities, especially historic cities, have their glorious as well as turbulent aspects; and the lives of normal people are often shaped by these contradictory aspects of the evolution of its history.
The rich narrative offers many details about these dimensions of Mecca's story. Works about other holy cities such as Rome or Jerusalem, perhaps, will reveal content of this kind. That should not take away from the divine nature of these cities but the realisation that such cities have moments just as any other cities do affirms the worldly part of human life.
Of the book's 11 chapters, Sharifs, Sultans and Sectarians mentions that it took almost two centuries after the birth of Islam for Mecca to be transformed from a conflict-ridden Middle Eastern city to one with a unique divine character. It also became a city that belonged exclusively to Muslims. Jews and Christians were prohibited from entering Mecca and Medina by Muawiya, the first Umayyad caliph.
What is remarkable to note is that the original community that was founded by Muhammad in Medina was a multi-religious one comprising Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans. This multi-religious character could be seen in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Marrakesh, Cordoba, and Teheran. Today, when there is such a heated discussion about the violent face of the Muslim world, the role of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the great intolerance in some of these cities towards non-Muslims or even to different sects of Muslims, it is comforting to learn that the Prophet did not approve of such persecution of non-Muslims, and saw no issue in Muslims living and practising Islam alongside people of other faiths thus approving of religious pluralism.
In the current context of Islamic militancy, Sardar's section on Wahabi Islam is very useful. The chapter entitled The Wahhabi Threat begins with a discussion on Sarur ibn Masaad, and the challenges he faced. There is more on Abd al-Wahhab, who believed Muslims had grown corrupt and superstitious. At first his teachings were opposed by even his father and brother. Later, a few endorsed them.
But it was the partnership between the House of Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which was firmly sealed in 1747, that contributed to its expansion. In 1792, when Ibn Abd al-Wahhab died, Wahhabi forces had consolidated their position and had launched a jihad against Shias, Sufis and other sects of Islam.
Using the thoughts of Swiss explorer, John Lewis Burckhardt (1784-1817), Sardar advances his narrative of the Wahhabi movement. The Swiss scholar found Mecca a very cosmopolitan city - inhabited largely by foreigners with the Quraysh having become almost extinct. The Sharif clans were the only ones who were people of significance. The citizens of Mecca were now from Yemen, India, Syria and included Turks and Moroccans. There were small communities of Persians, Kurds, Afghans, people from Samarkand and Bukhara.
Most of them came as pilgrims, married local women and settled down do business. We also learn that the natives tried to distinguish themselves from the new citizens by tattooing themselves with three cuts down on both cheeks and two on the right temple. The ritual was performed when children were only 40 days old and was evidence that they had been born in the holy city.
Mecca under the Saudis presents interesting insights to the question of how the city was transformed into such a well-governed one and touches on how King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud introduced measures that brought about the transformation. In sum, scholars and general readers will find this book a great source, not just about the history of the holy city Mecca but also about the history of Islam and some aspects of the contemporary predicament of the Muslim world.
Note: Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi