Faith & Reason: The veil which shrouds Mecca starts to lift

For centuries Islam's holiest city has refused access to all non- Muslims. But the appetites of a global media may cause profound change

THERE IS no better way of understanding Islam's position as a global religious civilisation at the end of the 20th century than to contemplate the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which takes place this month. The major dilemmas, tensions and features of Islam's global presence are encapsulated in those few weeks the pilgrim spends in Mecca.

About two million people descend on Mecca. It is probably the greatest gathering of its kind in the world today. The logistics and the nationalities are a travel agent's nightmare. Yet to its credit the Saudi administration spends a great deal of its time, money and resources planning for the occasion throughout the year and trying to improve on the previous year's.

Mecca and Medina are the holiest cities on earth for Muslims. It is why the Saudi king - one of the richest and most powerful on earth - takes his greatest pride in the title the Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. He has unequivocally aligned himself to the roots of his faith. When Henry Kissinger, in arm- twisting mode, once threatened King Faisal that the United States would capture Saudi oilwells and blow them up if he did not fall in line, the Saudi monarch was not cowed. "Then we will go back to our date trees," he replied.

To Muslims this is the holiest place on earth, directly linked to the origins of our faith. But it links not only to the life of the holy Prophet but that of his ancestors going back to the father of the three great monotheistic religions - the man Muslims call Ibrahim and Jews and Christians know as Abraham. The presence of these generations of faith resonates in the streets, in the buildings, in the name, in the mythology and, of course, at the core of it all in the Haram Sharit, at the heart of which is the mystical black stone which Muslims believe was given to the Prophet Mohamed by the Angel Gabriel, who dictated to the Prophet the word of God which is the Koran. It is so evocative as to reduce me to tears every time.

Mecca is arguably the most closed society on the planet. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the jurisdiction of Mecca and therefore there is no communication with the outside world nor are its political, cultural or social developments allowed to intrude. (There have been, of course, exceptions to the rule. Richard Burton, that incorrigible Victorian romantic, donned the guise of a Pathan doctor from north India and turned up as a pilgrim. And he too was moved to ecstasy by the experience.) Pilgrims all wear only a plain, anonymous robe. Stripped of all modern clothing and paraphernalia, each is just one among thousands. At Mecca I am always moved by the unity and diversity of humanity: people - black, brown, yellow, white - mix with each other without a glance. Here presidents, pickpockets, paupers and prostitutes stand shoulder to shoulder without concern for who the other might be. It was here that the black American Muslims like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X felt free and valued as human beings for the first time in their lives and wrote about the experience.

Here is truly an egalitarian order and all are equal in the eyes of God. There is only one yardstick - and that is piety and goodness in behaviour. There is only one identity - that of the pilgrim. Rituals have been laid down for centuries and everyone follows them with joy in their hearts. No social scientist can fail to be impressed by the relative "purity" of Mecca.

But what is the future? How long can Mecca maintain its isolation in a world that will not permit distinctness? Ours is now a global culture dominated by an international media which is characterised by two things - its insatiable appetite for information and its irreverence to faith.

Can the separateness of Mecca survive? Or will the might of the modern world - whose most effective battalions arrive via television, VCR, the Internet, the satellite dish, and e-mail - have the same impact upon Islam's sacred centre as it has had upon the holy places of the Catholics, the Sikhs and the Hindus? We know the impact which the modern world has had on the Vatican, on Amritsar and on countless other sacred sites. Mecca alone remains shrouded with a veil. That veil is now in the process of being lifted. The battle has now arrived at the core of religion itself for the Muslims.

All of this is a metaphor for the confrontation happening in the world today between faith and the economic forces of globalised secularism. It is a confrontation which is a source of anger in the Muslim world. They cannot now leave behind the politics, the stories of our world with ease. And yet we can neither ignore the rapid developments which are all around us and which will significantly affect - in a way which is not fully calculated - both the individual and the society in which we all live. The intrusions of the media will have a profound influence in the changing of values and the behaviour which flow from them. How Muslims respond to the challenge will have an impact far wider than the walls of Mecca might contain.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and is the author of `Islam Today: a short introduction to the Muslim world' (I.B. Tauris, pounds 9.95)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?