Mecca: The Sacred City by Ziauddin Sardar, book review: Ancient rites sit beside new frills

 
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When the British writer and explorer Richard Francis Burton accompanied a caravan to Mecca in 1853, he described the feelings of many Muslims on their first visit to the capital of Islam. In Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Mecca, he wrote, "Few Moslems contemplate for the first time the Kaaba without fear and awe".

Over 150 years later, Ziauddin Sardar begins his history of Islam's most important city in a similar manner. Recalling his inaugural Hajj in 1975, Sardar writes about studying Islam with his mother, and later in a madrassa in Pakistan. "There was never a doubt that I must always look towards Mecca if I was to amount to anything worthwhile in this world," he writes.

For all Muslims, a pilgrimage to Mecca is part of a contract with God. Until recently, for many Hajj pilgrims, a visit to Mecca was the only time they would leave their home country. Husbands and wives saved for decades to embark on the journey to the holy city. They would travel by cars, planes and boats. Hajj marked a final duty before retirement, old age and death.

Sardar, who has written extensively about Islam and British Muslims in books like "Balti Britain" and "Desperately Seeking Paradise", views Mecca in a space which unites multiple religions, faith, war and myth. The city's relationship with prophets predates Islam. Mecca is home to the remains of Adam; the Kaaba, which contains the black rock revered by Muslims, was first built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

But it wasn't until after Muhammad's death in 632 AD, and the wars which fuelled Islam's early growth, that Mecca began to expand. Abdullah ibn Zubair, who declared Mecca an independent state in 683, led the first major development of the Grand Mosque. The walls of the Kaaba were polished, the cubic structure was covered by a silk cloth sourced from Egypt and pathways were paved with stone.

By 750 AD, Mecca had been transformed into a rich and cosmopolitan city. When Caliph al-Mahdi first visited Mecca, he distributed 30 million Dirhams and 150,000 garments. Caravans from across the region delivered gifts of jewels and food. The King of Kabul sent a throne; the King of Tibet sent a gold statue.

Many Muslims give little thought to why Mecca has maintained its prominence for nearly 1,400 years. This is partly explained by the fact that unlike the Vatican, for example, the rulers of Mecca offer no advice on politics. As the city remains constant, Islam's other seats of power, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, have fallen into war or ruin. The rituals of the Hajj are also unchanged: each visitor performs identical rites in the same garb. The image of Mecca resonates around the world, but its politics are local and communal.

Yet in other ways, as Sardar's authoritative book demonstrates, Mecca has kept pace with a global age. In the years between the birth of Islam and the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, Mecca hosted around 100,000 pilgrims each year. Over the last 30 years, those figures have multiplied beyond comprehension. Between two and three million Muslims now annually perform the Hajj. Mecca hosts 17 million visitors each year.

Mecca is a destination city which thrives on Asian wealth, affordable travel, and modern services. Outside the Grand Mosque each evening, worshippers file into a mall in the five-star Abraj al-Bait complex. Saudis, Kuwaitis, Indians, Iranians, Afghans and Chechens walk past shops selling Prada handbags and Samsonite luggage. Pilgrims eat burgers, fried chicken and spicy curries in a food court. Sardar is understandably depressed by a number of these modern developments.

The pace of change is as swift as the traffic between Mecca and Jeddah. Saudis in the holy city rent spare rooms on Airbnb. Students give historical tours of the city's hills and suburbs. On a visit to Mecca earlier this year, I noticed security guards had given up trying to enforce a ban on "Kaaba selfies". Musical ringtones can be heard throughout the Grand Mosque's prayer rooms.

Sardar should be praised for his scholarly and well researched history of Mecca. As the city undergoes another physical transformation, the author's book will prove to be an essential text for anyone interested in the birthplace of Islam.

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