Mecca is best known as the long-held historically sacred space for global Muslims and the place where over 4 million Muslims conduct a pilgrimage every year. For centuries, Muslims reference the verse, “And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who can find the way thither,” (3:97) and the rites that were established by Muhammad to carry out this sacred pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. But Muslim tradition dates this pilgrimage even further back to Abraham and even Adam, who were instructed in the performance of the rites by angels. But today, surrounding this sacred holy site — which the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims know as the Kaa’ba, a large, black-cloth-adorned cube usually labeled symbolically as the House of God — is what I consider, Meccahattan, bustling shopping centers with the world’s most expensive designer fashions, award-winning restaurants and cuisines accompanied by every notable fast-food chain from the West, and towers with bright and flashing lights that feel like Times Square in New York and Las Vegas, Nevada. It is no longer the sacred Mecca that has been historically known and revered as a holy site for global Muslims across centuries. It is now a cosmopolitan and commercial machine.
Historically, leaders around the globe had a deep and consistent reverence and respect for the holy site of the Kaa’ba and the areas surrounding it. In the early 17th century, for example, during the construction Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet learned that the six minarets on this new structure was the same number as the minarets to the mosque surrounding the Kaa’ba. Fearful that it could be construed as a disrespect to the Kaa’ba, the sultan immediately ordered and made possible for a seventh minaret to be built in Mecca before construction of the mosque in Istanbul had been completed. This was once the spirit of respect that reigned strong throughout Islamic history for the sacred space of the mosque of the Kaa’ba. All contributed to further beautify, preserve and maintain its sacredness out of reverence.
But the Kaa’ba today is overshadowed by luxury buildings. Historically protected spots of Islamic heritage in Mecca and, as I will show in a later essay, in Medina are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. And, as part of the Islamic Heritage work that we conduct on the ground in Saudi Arabia, we have learned that the changes that have taken place in Mecca so far are only 10% of the proposed changes still to take place.
Some of this destruction is not that new, but all of them have been initiated by the Wahhabi control of power and maintenance of the sacred space in Mecca. In 1803, Saudi Wahhabis briefly captured Medina and Mecca from the Ottomans, and proceeded to destroy Islamic shrines and monuments they viewed as idolatrous. Over a century later, in 1925, at the dawn of the modern Saudi state, even more sites were leveled in Medina. The Muslim world, especially the Indian subcontinent, was aware of these atrocities. The Saudi Arabian government told Muslim leaders that they feel duty bound to oppose Sufism, Shiism and what the Wahhabis viewed as their kufr that they didn’t care about the Muslim World’s view on this issue. Strong protests and meetings were held in mosques throughout the world but had no success.
This phenomenon has accelerated over the past three decades. Saudi Binladen Group, the engineering and construction firm that was the source of Osama bin Laden’s wealth, carried out the government-ordered destruction of nearly 98% of all historical vestiges and buildings in Mecca since 1985 — including the houses of Prophet Mohammad, his family and his companions, may peace and blessings be upon them — and replacing them with hotels, toilet facilities, parking lots and commercial or government complexes.
A Saudi academic of Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh recently published a document calling for the Green Dome — which covers the Hujra Sharifa, the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him — to be removed along with some sacred columns inscribed with poetry venerating the Prophet next to the sacred chamber. The academic said they attract bida (reprehensible innovation) and as a result, he sought to separate the sacred chamber from the mosque itself.
An estimated $20 billion has been spent on mega-projects, which include a planned train system, mosque expansions and the construction of high-class hotels, residential and retail complexes. But these developments have taken a heavy toll on the cultural and historical heritage that existed in Mecca for over a thousand years.
Officials’ actions have shown a deliberate attempt to wipe away Mecca and Medina’s historical monuments relating to the Prophet, his family and companions, may peace and blessings be upon them. In the first week of November this year, 17th-century Ottoman-era porticos and Mamluk columns dating back 660 years were demolished. The Ottomans had marked certain historical locations, such as the house of Umm Hani where the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, commenced his famous night journey on Buraq (Pegasus) by night from the Sacred Mosque to Bayt Al-Maqdis in Jerusalem. The porticos had beautiful Ottoman art and names of the Prophet’s family and companions, similar to ones in Masjid Al Nabawi, that the Saudis painted over.
The house of the Prophet is also under threat from a modern architecture plan by Saudi Binladin Group that has been approved by the royal presidency of the two Grand mosques. The proposed plan threatens to demolish the historical eastern vicinity of the courtyard. This location at the foot of Jabal Khandima houses a small library that marks the site of the house where the Prophet was born, known as the House of Mawlid, the house of birth. This is in close proximity to the house of Khadija, the blessed Prophet’s first wife, may peace and blessings be upon her. As quoted by historians in Mecca, after the Kaa’ba, the most important site was considered to be the House of Khadija and Dar Al-Arqam ibn Abi’l Arqam, the house of a companion of the Prophet. It was once a safe place where early Muslims met, prayed and learned their faith. The house was east of Al Safa, where Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, would meet his companions, and could be entered and exited secretly because it was on a narrow street. It became known as the House of Islam and can be regarded as the first Islamic school.
Today, the area near the house of Khadija has been covered with toilets and converted to the largest functioning bathrooms.
In a report submitted to the Municipality of Mecca, I have requested the removal of toilets and bathrooms toward Al-Marwa Mountain where pilgrims walk to commemorate Hagar’s search for water and God’s mercy in answering her prayers. This is within the proximity of the house of Khadija, where the Prophet lived with his family for 28 years and received revelations from the Angel Gabriel. If this site is demolished, the greatest evidence of Islamic history will be entirely destroyed.
Not too far away from the House of Mawlid on the Jabal Khandima are plans for the king’s palace to be constructed, with demolition taking place by next year.
The house of Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle, may peace and blessings be upon him — which was located behind the Hilton hotel near Sharai Ibrahim Al Khalil Street — was also recently demolished to make way for luxury hotels.
The six mosques in Medina at the site of the Battle of the Trench are closed and scheduled to be demolished. Masjid Fath is where the Prophet supplicated for victory for three days before a revelation is said to have been given to the Prophet that the Muslims would win the battle.
The landscape has also significantly changed as a result of these demolitions. Over the past 10 years, historical mountains such as Jabal Kaa’ba, Jabal Qaikaan on the Southern tip of Marwa (which has been dynamited beyond the current expansion), Jabal Abu Qubais, Jabal Umar and Jabal Khandima, which overlooks the sacred mosques in the East, were blown up to make way for tall buildings. Google Earth shows that the geography of Mecca has changed dramatically, especially around Masjid Al-Haraam.
The destructions of these mountains with dynamite has affected the source of ZamZam (holy water) and its well, which dates back 4,000 years. There is danger of the groundwater mixing with the historical ZamZam spring, which flows through granite and rock.
The well of Tuwa in Mecca near Jabal Kaa’ba is associated with the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, and faces demolition even though it still produces water. It is surrounded by rubble and heavy construction, and some people say it has not been authenticated as the well where the Prophet had bathed.
In the latest plans, Professor Abdulaziz Al-Harby from Umm Al-Qura University has proposed that the location of Maqam Ibrahim (Prophet Ibrahim’s place of standing) be shifted from the middle of the circumambulation area to its outer edges to make room for pilgrims. The place where Maqam Ibrahim lies today is the same spot where it was situated at the time of Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon them, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and it has been there for over 14 centuries. The Maqam is the last untouched structure in the Grand Mosque.
Several studies prove that Maqam Ibrahim is not an obstacle in the motion of pilgrims, nor is it the cause of overcrowding that occurs in the tawaaf (circumambulation) around the Holy Kaa’ba. There is no imperative need to reposition the Maqam. It actually serves a beneficial function — it slows down and reduces the impact of the waves created by the influx of people circulating the Kaa’ba.
One only needs to look at Google maps to see the drastic changes taking place. And the destruction is continuing and at an alarmingly increasing speed. Saudi authorities, supported by religious Wahhabi scholars, offer a twofold argument for the removal of heritage sites. They say these sites pose security risks for visiting pilgrims due to structural instability, and lacking any religious significance, the sites may lead to shirq innovation, the worship of a person or object.
Historian and researcher Abdul Wahhab Abu Sulaiman presented the Sharia ruling on the proposed development of the birthplace site and preserving historical sites in and around Mecca, arguing that they should be protected under Islamic law. Yet, Saudi authorities continue to refuse permission for any excavations to be carried out in this historical area and continue to deny preserving the historical buildings.
And ironically, it is these same Saudi ruling parties who have spent almost 43 years blustering over Israeli threats to the Islamic precincts on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, including the oldest artifact of Muslim architecture, the Dome of the Rock. And they were quick to protest Western “insensitivity” when Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, was depicted in Danish newspaper cartoons. But they remain silent as these radicals demolish Muslim and Arab cultural heritage, and keep quiet about attacks on Shia and Sunni shrines in Iraq and Syria carried out by Saudi-incited Wahhabi terrorists. The holy sites are unique places in the world that must be beautiful and safe to live, experience and visit. Their sanctity and spirituality should be honored forever. Although the scale of the setting and its occupancy by pilgrimage is extensive, the holy sites and surrounding cities should confer a contemplative silence and a settled, reverential atmosphere. It is up to the Muslim community worldwide to raise their concerns with Saudi authorities to halt further destruction of these sites.
One could potentially recognize the need for development to accommodate a growing number of Muslim pilgrims. But historically, in the spirit of the sultan and countless other global leaders who revered and respected the sacred space of Mecca, any development was also done ethically and consciously without causing any harm or loss to tradition. But these long-protected sites are not protected. They are being bulldozed.
(Dr. Irfan Al Alawi is a prominent historian on Hijaz and the Executive Director Islamic Heritage Research Foundation its purpose preservation, protection, documenting, surveying and imaging the historical sites.)
(Courtesy: The Islamic Monthly)