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
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The Independent Culture
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)