Taking Back Islam’s Holy Sites

DECEMBER 12, 2015 | 

By Anisa Mehdi

As the world reacts to the host of Islamic State terrorist attacks that brought tragedy and death to Paris, Muslim scholars, clerics and lay people alike are speaking up about the troubles within the house of Islam. They are asserting, as loudly as the media will project, that no single authority truly speaks for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, that terror is anathema to Islam’s religious ethic and that tension among its branches — particularly the Sunni and Shiite sects — needs to be addressed.

Some of these issues date back more than 80 years, to when the Ottoman Empire (then the highest authority in Sunni Islam) was defeated in World War I and replaced by a new Turkish Republic that inherited the empire’s ruins. Now, the culturally diverse and decentralized population of 21st-century Muslims is dealing with the implications of not having a single coherent authority in one of the world’s biggest faiths. The most urgent question is how to assert a universal disavowal of the Islamic State. But another that is gaining traction is the simple and yet complex question: Who should control Islam’s holiest sites?

Mismanaging Mecca and Medina

The two most important places are Mecca and Medina, the primary spiritual focal points for Muslims around the world. The Masjid al Haram, or the Great Mosque of Mecca, houses Islam’s central shrine, the Kaaba. The Kaaba symbolizes the first house of worship built for the One God, and it is the sacred shrine toward which Muslims pray. Over time it has been felled by fire and flood; the mosque protecting it has been rebuilt, modified and expanded time and again for the past 14 centuries. Medina is home to the second holy mosque, Al Masjid an-Nabawi, or the Prophet’s Mosque, which is built around the Prophet Mohammed’s house. It, too, has grown to accommodate an increasing number of worshippers over time. Presently, Saudi Arabia controls both cities, but this arrangement is becoming increasingly controversial among Muslims.

Concerns about Saudi Arabia’s authority over the two sites have been simmering for some time, but the deadly stampede that took place there during this year’s hajj pilgrimage has lent them greater urgency. Initial reports indicated that more than 700 people died and at least 800 more were wounded in the crushing crowd of pilgrims approaching the Jamarat Bridge to perform the hajj’s penultimate ritual Sept. 24. By Dec. 10, the estimated death count had risen to more than 2,400.

Criticism and blame were quick to follow, and many leveled accusations of inept management against the Saudi government. Riyadh in turn placed the fault with the pilgrims for allegedly failing to follow instructions.

What is Global Affairs?

Muslim leaders looking for a solution have begun to suggest that it might be time for the reigning House of Saud to relinquish its absolute control over the two cities, which lie within the geographic boundaries of the kingdom. The Saudis’ claim on Mecca and Medina comes as a result of conquest, not election. With protests mounting against Saudi Arabia’s administration of the hajj, unsafe conditions for pilgrims on the rise, and challenges to Saudi Arabia’s rampant destruction of archaeological sites in the two cities to make way for luxury hotels and high-rise buildings growing increasingly vociferous, pushback against the kingdom’s custodial role will likely get stronger as time goes on.

Exclusive Control of a Global Doctrine

Sovereignty over the revered cities has changed hands many times over the centuries. Authority began with the Prophet Mohammed when he established a community in Medina in 622. After his death in 632, control of the burgeoning Islamic Empire shifted from local leaders to the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus before passing to the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad and then onward to the Fatimids of Cairo. Finally, Mecca and Medina came under the control of the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottomans lost the cities in their defeat in World War I, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud (the first king of Saudi Arabia) staked his claim over territory that included Mecca and Medina, formally establishing his kingdom in 1932. Saud’s reigning sons have called themselves the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” ever since.

But the 21st century has brought new scrutiny of this custodianship. Over the past 80 years, residents and visitors have witnessed swift and dramatic changes taking place in the two cities. Entire neighborhoods near the Kaaba in Mecca have been razed to make way for ritzy hotels and high-end shops. The Abraj al Bait clock tower, the second-tallest building in the world, looms over the shrine like a steel-and-glass Godzilla. Saudi officials flattened the Ottoman-era Ajyad Fortress in 2002 to build the tower. Former Turkish Culture Minister Istemihan Talay has called the destruction “cultural vandalism” and “a war on legacy.” The historic surroundings of the Medina mosque are likely doomed to meet a similar fate.

Amid these changes to the holy cities’ landscapes, the Saudi government has asked for little input beyond the advice of engineers, architects and crowd-control experts. At a 2013 press conference in Mecca on the expansions underway at the time, I asked with whom the city’s governors had consulted. After all, major municipal development in U.S. cities often requires town hall meetings and referendums. The Saudi spokesperson looked at me quizzically and said, “We don’t have to consult anyone.”

I responded, “A follow-up, sir, if I may: If your government expands the Haram so that two million or more people may circle the Kaaba at the same time, the people on the outermost rings will be so far away that they won’t even be able to see it. And they’ve come such a long way for this, most of them for the only time in their lives.” He replied without hesitation, “You don’t need to see the Kaaba to make your hajj.”

As it stands, Saudi Arabia also determines who may complete the mandatory pilgrimage because it controls whose visas are approved. Currently, a quota system is in place to help answer that question. Meanwhile, wealthy pilgrims who can afford to stay in the new hotels overlooking the sacred sites have an easier time completing the required rituals than those who are less well off. Affordable lodging has moved farther and farther away from Mecca’s religious centerpiece, and the majority of pilgrims spend hours each day jammed into buses or walking through huge crowds to circle the Kaaba. Rich and poor alike are subjected to the maze of barriers and tight corridors leading to the Jamarat Bridge, where the “Stoning the Devil” ritual takes place and where the deadly 2015 stampede occurred.

Each of the annual hajj rituals and the daily practices of worship at the Kaaba are Muslim, not Saudi. Yet the kingdom maintains its grip over them through its claim to power, not by popular preference.

Reclaiming the Religion

So what alternatives exist? One option could be modeled on the Vatican. The sacred center of Roman Catholicism is inside the borders of Italy, but Vatican City functions as a separate political entity. The Vatican is not Italian, just as Catholicism is not Italian.

But without a single, central Muslim authority akin to the pope, is there an Islamic option? One place to look is into Islam’s past: The Prophet Mohammed used the Shura model to make decisions, and it stabilized the Muslim community after his death. Perhaps a similar rotating consultative council made up of representatives elected by the world’s Muslim laymen and clergy could be the solution.

Shortly after this year’s hajj calamity, the California-based Muslim Public Affairs Council suggested, “If Saudi Arabia cannot handle the scrutiny and answer the challenging questions, it is time to re-evaluate its roles and responsibilities for the hajj.” London’s Islamic Human Rights Commission chimed in, chiding, “Pilgrims must be treated as guests of God, not guests of the Saudi government.” It went on to recommend the creation of “some sort of Islamic Waqf, as it was at the time of Ottomans, [to make] sure that the main Muslim nations will actually have a say and they coordinate how this whole thing [is] run.”

No single family, nation or self-proclaimed caliphate can rightfully claim dominion over a faith that is based on universality, diversity and equality. Nor does any single entity have title to a religion that proclaims:

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are those that are best in conduct. God is all-knowing, all-aware.”

Islam’s reformation will no doubt be as turbulent and bloody as the centurylong Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. The formation of an international committee that presides over Mecca and Medina may become one of many markers along the rocky road empowering Muslims to reclaim their religion from those who abuse its name and spirit.



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