The study of the Seerah of the Prophet (saw) to learn lessons relevant to the contemporary Islamic movement is a major project of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought. Here, IMAM MUHAMMAD AL-'ASI, of Washington DC, discusses the centrality of Makkah in the strategy of the Prophet’s Seerah, and its implications for Muslims today.
When Islam was cast in its eternal Qur’anic expression over 14 centuries ago in Arabia, the world was suffering from superpower inertia. The glitter of both the Roman and Persian empires had become lusterless. The relationship between men seeking God and men slaving for Satan was as bad as it can get. The mission of ‘Isa (as) (Jesus) as it struggled to survive in and around the Holy Land was being passed through the oesophagus of the Roman power structure. The grand stand-off between the Persian and the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empires had no significance. We can say at this point that state-structures, mighty rulers, and big-power status had little relevance to most people.
It was in this scenario that, in an obscure and isolated spot in the world, a young man in Arabia began to receive and experience the kalaam – words – of Allah. It was in this milieu that a struggle began in an unfamiliar and disregarded Makkah. This whole struggle is defined and outlined by the strategic and tactical decisions that were made by Muhammad, Allah’s Messenger (saw) – the human manifestation of the Qur’an. It is these decisions and determinations, taken in the context of this struggle, which constitute what Muslims usually refer to as the Seerah.
One question that historians, social scientists, and philosophers will always ponder is that of "Why Arabia?" Why did Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala select this particular place for the revelation and enactment of his final Scripture, with universal teachings and global implementation? Why wasn’t so important a Scripture, and so crucial a Prophet, sent to one of the advanced and "civilized" societies of human history at that time, such as Egypt, or Persia, or Greece, or India, or China, or Rome?
And furthermore, why, of all the places in Arabia, why did Muhammad (saw) emerge from Makkah, which was backward and undeveloped even by Arabian standards? There were other, more advanced or urbane centers in Arabia that might have had a better claim. Yemen was known for its advancement and sophistication, having a higher state of culture and social development than the "backward" Makkah. Yathrib (later to become known at al-Madinah al-Nabi) was more cosmopolitan, with an agricultural base, a business class, and multi-religious character. But Muhammad (saw) was not meant to have been born and raised in Yathrib or Yemen, any more than he was meant to have been born or raised in Persian or Roman society. His birth and upbringing in Makkah, and the fact that that small town became the centre Allah’s final revelation, was undoubtedly a matter and expression of Divine Will. But what is there about Makkah that it was marked as the birthplace of Muhammad (saw), the place of origin of the Qur’an, the cradle of Islam, and the provenance of the Seerah?
Makkah is an ancient city, although its early history is not well chronicled. The word "Makkah" itself does not ring any linguistic bells in the derivative-rich Arabic language, which is surprising considering that Makkah is as central to Arabic as Rome is to Latin or Oxford is to English. The name "Makkah" refers in fact to a valley: "And He it is who, in the valley of Makkah, blocked their hands from you, and your hands from them, after He had enabled you to vanquish them; and Allah is ever watchful of what you are doing" (al-Qur’an 48:24).
Reference is also made to Makkah in the third surah of the Qur’an, with its initial letter ‘M’ re-formed into the initial ‘B’: "Behold, the first Temple ever set up for mankind was indeed the one at Bakkah: rich in blessing, and a [source of] guidance unto all the worlds" (3:96).
Bakkah here refers to Makkah or the land located between its two surrounding mountains. (The word "bakka" referring to a valley appears to be of ancient Semitic origin.) Similarly, Makkah may be used to refer to the whole of the sanctified city, or to the sacrosanct or inviolable temple area within the city.
The inquiry into the location of a nebulous Makkah located in a barren Arabia may have to be referred to the fact that Ibrahim (as) had brought his wife Hajar (r) and their son Isma’il (as) to this peculiar position and precise place to enhance its Scriptural, Semitic and seminal significance. Allah’s words are:
And [remember the time] when Ibrahim spoke [thus]: "O my Sustainer! Make this land secure, and preserve me and my children from ever conforming to idols – for, verily, O my Sustainer, these [false objects of adulation] have led many people astray.
Hence, [only] he who follows me [in this my faith] is truly of me; and as for him who disobeys me – You are, indeed, much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!
O our Sustainer! Behold, I have settled some of my offspring in a valley in which there is no arable land, close to Your sanctified Temple, so that, O our Sustainer, they might devote themselves to [institutionalizing] prayer: induce You, therefore, people’s hearts to incline towards them, and grant them fruitful sustenance, so that they might have cause to be grateful. (Al-Qur’an 14:35-37.)
The human motivation of Ibrahim (as) in resettling his family in Arabia at a place dedicated to Allah was his wish and plea to have this particular residence of his family an abode of stability and security. Ibrahim brought his family to an arid and sunbaked part of the world. There was no trace of urban life around. It was Isma’il’s exposure as a baby-infant to the scorched and bone-dry elements of the Arabian desert that caused the eruption of water which still flows to day, and is called the well of Zamzam.
It is because of this history that Makkah became central to the Ibrahimi legacy and endowment. There is no future or current civilization or modernity that can really eclipse Makkah or cast a shadow on its Ibrahimi roots and origin. And when Ibrahim (as) said: "O my Sustainer! Render me one who carries out [the legalities of] salah and have my offspring [do the same]; O our Sustainer! Accept our plea..." (14:39), he foretold the centrality of this remote and barren part of the. When Muhammad (saw) was born in Makkah, he was the fulfilment of this du’a of Ibrahim, his great forefather. Before Muhammad (saw), the descendents of Ibrahim (as) included other Prophets of Allah (swt), but their duties began in their immediate environment, which was centered around al-Quds (Jerusalem). Among the paradigmatic and geographic distinctions of the Muhammadi mission was its reassignment of the qibla from al-Quds to Makkah. This event was itself a chapter in the on-going history of the Muhammadi mission, emphasising and confirming the centrality of Makkah to that history. Later, when the Prophet was forced to flee Makkah, to avert the plans of the power elites in Makkah to kill him, and he was excluded from Makkah for the next several years, with the embryonic Islamic state in Madinah becoming the focus of the Seerah, the struggle to liberate Makkah remained a central theme of the mission.
It is understood from some historical references that a temple once stood in the area that was to become known as Makkah, and that, by inspiration from Allah, Ibrahim (as) left his wife and baby son in this desolate area of Arabia. When Ibrahim left them there, Hajar (r) repeatedly asked him: "Where are you going, and why are you leaving us in this forsaken valley where there is no trace of life?" He tried not to answer her, but when she asked him: "Did Allah instruct you to do this?", he said "yes". She then said: "if that is the case Allah will not forsake us." Ibrahim then walked until he was out of their sight, then turned towards that abandoned temple, raised his hands and made the du’a quoted in ayah 14:37.
It should be mentioned here that a miracle made Makkah possible. After Ibrahim (as) had left Hajar and Ismail, food and water began to run out. As the child cried, and perhaps appeared to approach death, Hajar was wandering to and fro, frantically trying to find some source of life, some water, anything at all, knowing that her son’s death was inevitable unless some help was found. At this threshold of life and death, as out of nowhere, water suddenly came gushing from beneath Isma’il’s feet. It was this water of life that attracted other forms of life to this hitherto barren part of the world. Birds and animals moved into the area, people followed, and the place that Allah had ordered that Ibrahim (as) leave his wife and son because an oasis and a centre of settlement and civilization in Arabia. As the will of Allah would have it, Hajar was from the land of the Nile and Ibrahim was from the land of the Euphrates; and their son Isma’il was now from the land of zamzam.
Makkah was to become the haven of the forsaken, the weak, the tender, the infirm, the powerless and the frail. In an odd twist, the significance of Makkah has been lost on Muslims adrift and picked up by others, who captured the meanings of Makkah and regenerated it to their own purposes and interests, saying: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
All of Makkah’s rich history and symbolism have been smothered by small-minded, dogmatic and intolerant attitudes that have usurped Makkah from the Hajars, the Isma’ils, the family and children of Ibrahim (as). The very reason that Makkah exists is that it is a refuge, a shelter and an abode, and a retreat for helpless mothers, hungry children, stateless refugees and dispossessed "foreigners." Wasn’t that the condition of Hajar and Isma’il who were the first two who relocated, settled down, and then took up residence in what was to become the Makkah of today?
Are they, then, not aware that We have set up a sanctuary secure [at least for those who are committed to Allah], the while all around them men are assailable, insecure and under attack? Will they then [continue to] adhere to false principles and to deny the blessings of Allah? (29:67)
It goes without saying that Makkah had always been considered a refuge, a safe place and a shelter from danger for those who felt threatened or beleaguered. The pre-Muhammadi inhabitants of Makkah honored its origins and its character of being a sanctuary and a recourse for those who needed it. If the anti-Islamic mushriks had continued to honor this historical heritage they would not have threatened to kill Muhammad (saw) while he was an established and legal resident of Makkah. Makkah then was opened to the homeless, the stateless and the powerless. There is no incident that we know of in the notorious jahiliyah in which anyone wanting to relocate to Makkah was told that they were not allowed to! It was unheard of. Makkah was even a temporary shelter for murderers and criminals who would run into the vicinity of the Masjid al-Haram in order not to be pursued by the aggrieved party.
Today, by contrast, Makkah is a forbidden zone. It is not open to committed Muslims, much less to those who have nowhere else to go. Imagine if Allah’s Prophet (saw) were living among us today and watching how access to the area is controlled by the descendants of his foes, who appear to be adopting Islamic rituals to thwart the most basic social values and standards of social justice of his teachings, and are bitter enemies of the growing number of Islamic activists and members of the Islamic movement who embody and espouse those values and standards.
In the first instance we would expect that the vast resources of the Islamic movement in today’s world would be marshalled to liberate Makkah, if Allah’s Prophet (saw) were leading today’s Islamic movement. This is only being consistent with his Seerah and sunnah when he spent a lifetime trying to wrest control over Makkah from an elite that understands "religion" to be at the service of their interests, or who are not interested in a message of divine justice that will sweep away their status quo beginning with the definition of the Masjid al-Haram and all the way up to their riba-tainted commercialization of society, religion and the human spirit.
The Islamic movement in our generation has to ask and answer a relevant question: Is Makkah the responsibility of its own inhabitants or is it the responsibility of all Muslims everywhere? Is Makkah an antique preserved for the ritualistic Muslims who are satisfied with a habitual or a mechanical Islam; or is Makkah meant to be the springboard for a vibrant and involved Islam that has to become the focus, the heart and the hub of an Islamically-motivated strategy and program that cannot rest until justice and equality are achieved? Muhammad (saw) was not interested in liberating Makkah simply because he was one of its citizens; he was interested in liberating Makkah as a divine responsibility. Muslims will not be able to recapture their historical mission and press on with their task of raising Allah’s deen to its worldwide civilizational status until we regain control of Makkah.
What type of Makkah do we have today? A ghost city. True, people from around the world routinely visit Makkah to fulfill their religious obligation by performing ‘umrah or the Hajj, but these pilgrimages do not have the global repercussions, transcending all the subdivisions and fault-lines of the ummah, that they are supposed to have. At present, two million members of a weakened and divided Ummah are permitted to go to Hajj every year, but the annual gathering of hujjaj is little more than a gathering of ineffective and absent-minded Muslims, with no impact whatsoever on the lives of Muslims or the affairs of the ummah, let alone the way the world is run.
Yet there are millions of widows, orphans, the destitute, refugees and others in need, simply among Muslims, who have no access to Makkah. And when Makkah no longer performs the role of Makkah, we have mushriks fill the void. There are the United Nations, its Security Council, the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency), the G8, the Scandinavian countries, and there are scores of other international and regional governmental departments and agencies, claiming to fulfil the role traditionally of Makkah, but on the mushriks’ terms, and for their own purposes.
Is there really an Islamic Makkah while Arabia is ruled by a Saudi regime which is totally subservient to the world’s greatest power of kufr, and gives free rein to the American Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigations (and probably the Israeli Mossad too – how would they prevent it?) to wander the peninsular, including the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah, in pursuit of committed Muslims who are trying to energize the seerah and popularize Qur’anic justice? There is a particular hadith of Allah’s Prophet (saw) which is particularly germane to some seerah-less Islamic movements today:
The Prophet (saw) said: You [the committed Muslims] will most certainly promote and construct what is self-evidently good and correct [al-ma’roof] and you will most certainly demote and deconstruct what is self-evidently bad and corrupt [al-munkar] and you will indeed have checks and balances on a ruler prone to injustice, and you will curtail his penchant away from justice to have him abide by the principles of justice, and you will by all means place such a ruler within a reference of truth and justice — or else Allah will put your hearts on a course of collision and conflict and He will condemn you [the committed Muslims] as He has condemned them [the children of Israel who deny Allah’s power].
People around the Prophet (saw) listening to this immediately asked: Should we resort to armed opposition? He replied: No, as long as they standardize and institutionalize the [social] salah.
In the closed circles of certain elites in the Islamic movement the whole seerah of Allah’s Prophet (saw) and many meanings and implications of the Qur’an, have effectively been suspended because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the last sentence of this hadith. The Prophet (saw) is saying that we should not resort to unseating a Muslim ruler as long as he "aqama al-salah"; i.e., as long as he extends the range of salah from the personal to the social, from themasjid to the masses, from the pulpit to the parliament, and from theory to practice. Note well: the Prophet (saw) did not say as long as they are just going through the motions of sujud andruku’. Now, because we are speaking about Makkah and how central and pivotal it is to recapturing the essence of our Islamic mission, where do the grotesque rulers of Makkah and Arabia stand on the scale? Are they actively involved in an Islamic movement that – through struggle – is concerned with the self-determination of the committed and sacrificing Muslims? Or are they apelike in their prayers, while outside the masajid their actions in power go directly against the principles of Islam, reflecting instead the orders coming from the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA?
Have you not considered he who falsifies al-deen? It is he who repulses the orphan; he does not campaign for [nor advance the cause of] the impoverished [and moneyless]. Misery, then, to those [Muslims] who pray [in a mechanical and mindless way] – those who are unmeaning and purposeless in performing their prayers; they are the ones who pretend [to be praying] and they are the ones who withhold [financial] support. (Al-Qur’an, Surah 107, al-Ma’uun).
Makkah is ruled by people whom this description fits exactly. The king, the crown prince, the minister-princes, all the way down to the local princelings, are all condemned as all of them are condemned as charged in this above surah: they falsify Allah’s deen, reducing it to empty ceremonials and obtuse legalisms against the poor that they would never apply to their own royal larceny. They are swift to chop off the hands or heads of Bangladeshi, Somali, Pakistani, and Egyptian Muslims in the public square after Jumu’ah prayers, because of some petty thievery. This they want us to believe is Allah’s deen and shari’ah! But when it comes to the theft and usurpation of the Holy Land, al-Masjid al-Aqsa, and al-Ard al-Mubarakah, these same Saudis and their petulama deactivate Makkah so that Muslims can never use its power and its central symbolism as a base from which to organize themselves to liberate their usurped countries and homelands. The average Saudi-minded Muslim is fanatical about the importance of Muslims’ toes being perfectly in line when standing for salat; but the same crypto-Muslim simply cannot comprehend that Muslims today lack a saff marsus: a compacted front line of combatant Muslims to fight for the sake and cause of Allah. Little do these midget minds understand that a straight line during salat that does not translate into a compact line during jihad is no line at all.
How many orphans do we Muslims have? No one really knows; with the kind of Saudi-sponsored Islamic da’wah organizations dominating the scene, no one seems interested in finding out. Our Prophet (saw), who himself was an orphan, would go uncounted and unnoticed by the official Saudi propagation of Islam, were he to be born today. How about the miskeen – the impoverished or disposessed – spoken of in Surah Ma’un? Why would the coroneted kings and the patrician princes of a ruling royal family want to be bothered with the subject of "needy Muslims," not to mention needy human beings? The ayaat above speak of a needy person in the generic sense, but perhaps the mental capacity of the Saudi princes cannot expand this to encompass the human condition. Nonetheless, they need to be held at least partly accountable for the millions of Muslims living in misery while these salat-thespians deposit Muslim wealth in the very imperialist and zionistriba operations that are driving more and more Muslims (and non-Muslims) into new depths and vicious cycles of hunger, poverty and hardship. If we today had a clear and sincere application of seerah necessities and priorities, these royal violators of the Qur’an and deniers of Allah’s power would be the first to be set straight. They are not behaving as Muslims should; rather, by acting as Muslims should not, they are "the ones who pretend..."
At times like this, when Muslims need Makkah the most, it is off-limits to us! Muslims need the safety and security of Makkah, but Saudi forces are ready to follow imperialist and zionist orders, and spill innocent Muslim blood around the Ka’bah; this is not speculation or a flight of fancy. They have proven that they are capable of bringing in kafir military forces and opening fire on the freedom-aspiring Muslims. If Sharon is the butcher of Beirut, then Fahd is the meatman of Makkah. Sharon has his equivalents in the seerah; so do Likud and the whole zionist, Israeli project and enterprise. And they will be dealt with accordingly, insha’Allah, as will those Muslims in the ummah today who follow un-Islamic and anti-Islamic agendas instead of working for promoting the principles and values embodies in the seerah of the Prophet (saw).
To achieve this, we must first of all set our Islamic house in order. We have to begin as the Prophet (saw) taught us. He began and virtually ended a lifetime with a strategy to set Makkah free from its tyrannical elites. He did not rest until that was accomplished. And in the process pockets and outposts of kufr in Arabia were also liberated from their Makkan counterparts. Is it any wonder that the Western and Israeli political and military establishments today are protecting their Saudi allies by political and military assistance – direct and indirect – and negative propaganda.
Allah says to us: "Indeed, Allah does not change a condition of a people until they change that which is within their [social] selves..." (13:11). We will not be able to transform our stagnant societies into resilient Islamic societies until we change our social psychology. This social psychology today is trapped within a dogmatic and unresponsive approach to the Qur’an and the Prophet (saw). The Muslim public mind has to rise up to the relevant meanings of the most important documents in our possession: the Qur’an and the example and teachings of the Prophet (saw).
Makkah is under Saudi occupation – effectively the control of the kuffar – because minds are hobbled by our maladroit and cumbersome lack of understanding of the seerah, and above all, because of the selective or partisan approach to the Qur’an and its ever-relevant meanings.