‘Mecca has been turned into Disneyland’
A new book about Mecca will outrage the hostage-beheading fanatics of ISIL, says Michael Kerr – who talks to the author
After his fifth pilgrimage to Mecca, Ziauddin Sardar was congratulating himself on having done at least part of it the hard way, 50 miles on foot over three days from Jeddah. He had climbed hills with a donkey so disobedient that he eventually sent it on in a pick-up truck. He had been pestered by policemen, nearly run over on the roads, and arrived dizzy from exhaust fumes.
Then he was introduced to another pilgrim, one who had walked from Somalia: it had taken him seven years.
With that, Sardar says, his ego evaporated. He also realised that he had been walking in search of two different Meccas. One was a metaphysical destination: the one he had first turned to in prayer as a boy; the one beloved of all Muslims. The other was a place firmly rooted in time and space, where human nature is exhibited “in all its foibles and ferocity”.
It’s the latter that he lays bare in his new book, Mecca: The Sacred City.
Sardar, a writer, broadcaster and cultural critic, was born in Pakistan and grew up in London. In the title of his last book he characterised himself as a “Sceptical Muslim”, and scepticism, along with revisionism, is equally evident in his latest.
First, he argues that Mecca, though central to Islam, has never been central to Muslim civilisation. It has never been the capital of any Muslim society, not even that of Muhammad, who, rejected in the city of his birth, fled to Medina. The culture, learning and achievements of cities that were capitals – including Baghdad and Istanbul – had little impact on Mecca, which throughout the centuries has remained “narrow, enclosed and indifferent to the changing realities of the wider world”.
Pilgrims on their way to perform the ritual stoning of Satan (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
In the same way, he says, the city’s residents and their way of life have been largely ignored in the great accounts of pilgrimage, which have dwelt on the travelling rather than the destination. Those residents have had their own concerns, “earthly, worldly concerns that they pursued in ways far removed from the sublime ideals the rest of the Muslim world was constructing around Mecca”.
It’s a book that will outrage the hostage-beheading fanatics of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), though it might be read with profit by anyone striving to understand them. “Throughout history,” Sardar told me, “controlling Mecca has meant controlling Islam. If a new fanatical organisation were to take over Mecca – and ISIL has made clear it would like to do so – that would have consequences not just for Islam but for the world as a whole.” Dogmatism is entirely at odds with the original spirit of the pilgrimage, or Hajj. On his, with the recalcitrant donkey, Sardar was inspired by the example of the 14th-century author Ibn Battuta, who, en route to Mecca, “picked up the travel bug that was so much a part of the historic Muslim experience”. He worked his way around the Muslim world, finishing in China before returning home via West Africa.
“The idea of the pilgrimage was that en route you would meet people and learn about different cultures. You discovered the diversity and richness of Islam and the great variety of human culture.” Nowadays, he says, those who can afford the cost of a Hajj package (£3,000 to £3,500) fly in in a group, and seldom meet anyone from a different culture. “This is why we have so much sectarian violence – because people know nothing of other sects and assume that theirs has the absolute truth.” Some of the truths about Mecca, the built city, are ugly, he writes, but they must be faced: “Even in the place Muslims idealise as sublime, human feet stand firm in mud and slime”.
He chronicles power struggles in which the Sacred Mosque itself has taken a battering; a succession of rulers who killed to gain ascendancy and kept it by flogging those who didn’t share their beliefs. One of the better rulers, Abu Nomay, abdicated in favour of two of his 30 sons, Humaida and Rumaitha. Humaida, reluctant to share power and fearful of challenges from his other brothers, killed one of them, Abul Ghaith, in 1314 and then invited the others to dinner. The main dish was the body of their brother, cooked whole.
The inhabitants of Mecca, not content with selling to the pilgrims (“We sow not wheat or sorghum; the pilgrims are our crops”), have robbed them too. At the end of the ninth century, one religious sect, the Qarmatians, “made a point of attacking caravans and succeeded in inflicting humiliation and bloodshed on the Holy City”. Sardar asks: “What is it about visions of paradise that turns minds hellish? This enduring human conundrum is neither a hypothetical question nor one exclusive to Islam.”
Muslims await prayers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The community Muhammad founded in Medina had been a multi-religious one, but Jews and Christians were banned from entering both Mecca and Medina by Muawiya, who was the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty and reigned from 661 to 680. Sardar tells of the non-believers who saw the ban as a challenge and answered it, disguising themselves in Arab garb and cloaking their spying in the guise of scientific research. He tells, too, of the converts, some of them English, who saw Mecca for themselves after “coming out” to the establishment as Muslims.
I tell the author that his book is affecting at the start, with its report of an elderly pilgrim who has struggled to reach Mecca and breathes his last there; amusing about his own travels; and increasingly angry towards the end.
Pilgrims perform the circumambulation of the cube-shaped Kaaba or ‘House of God’ in Mecca
He laughs. “How could I not be angry?” he says. “The Saudis have turned Mecca into Disneyland.” Though the city has been remade again and again in the image of whatever power was dominant at the time, its current custodians, who look to Houston as a model, have done more harm than any predecessors. Having bulldozed the last of the buildings that gave Mecca any architectural distinction, they have erected “a grotesque metropolis”, an “eruption of architectural bling”.
“You’ll notice,” he says, “that I return to that elderly pilgrim right at the end. “Mecca is for him and not for the tourists. It’s for those who are