As Muslims gather to undertake the hajj pilgrimage, the city of Mecca itself is experiencing a major transformation which seems to mirror larger upheavals in the Islamic world. A massive hotel complex featuring the world’s second tallest building has opened literally across the street from the mosque which forms the heart of the holy city. But more interesting than the intrusion of this gigantic tower is what caps off the building: the world’s largest clock face. Such a contrast of sacred and secular imagery is striking, for the clock actually represents an intrusion of modernity into a timeless place. It has also become the focal point of a movement which seeks to replace Greenwich Mean Time with “Mecca Time,” a movement partially explained by a rejection of colonialism, but one which also relies, as Salman Hameed at Religion Dispatches points out, on a growing consciousness of the need for Islam to establish its own place in the contemporary world rather than shun it.
Right now, the “Mecca Time” movement relies heavily on easily-disprovable scientific claims, which purport to demonstrate that the city of Mecca is world’s magnetic pole, among other things. But there is also a deeper change occurring here:
The urge on the part of some to show Mecca’s specialness in a scientific idiom has nothing to do with actual science. There is a whole genre in the Muslim world of claims that modern science is already in the Qur’an (such as modern embryology, the expanding universe, etc.), thus “verifying” the holy text’s truth. The claim that Mecca is the center of the world falls in this same unfortunate category. What is interesting here is the desire to use science (indeed, really bad science) as an instrument to verify religion.
Though repulsive to many Westerners today, these sorts of attempts at a shotgun marriage between faith and science actually represent a development away from a kind of literalism which rejects science tout court. This movement might be compared, for example, to the kinds of sermons preached by some Christian pastors in the wake of the Darwin’s popularity in the latter half of the nineteenth century (this line of thinking, it should be noted, has not passed away, creationism still holding sway over a not-insignificant portion of the American population).The question more and more Muslims are asking now seems to be how they can create what Samuel Huntington called an “alternative modernity.” Taken together with other recent trends in the Middle East (especially the Arab Spring uprisings, which have used the phrase “God is great” as a rallying cry for democratic reform) . These embryonic attempts at reconciling modernity with Islam may be crude for the time being, but they may also point the way out of an uncomfortable dichotomy between reactionary religious literalism (often coupled with an anti-education mentality) and a capitulation to secularization.