Mecca is threatened. The city is the sacred center of attention for all Muslims. It is the location of the qibla, or direction of prayer, and the destination for millions of participants in the annual hajj, the pilgrimage required for all Muslims who can afford it, at least once in their lives. But a remaking of Mecca is underway and has already destroyed much of the city’s unique historical and religious heritage.
The damage to the city’s Islamic past is motivated by a doctrinal argument. Many locations in and around Mecca are linked to historical figures, and they have served as focal points for prayer. Wahhabi clerics who dominate the Saudi kingdom’s religious life strenuously oppose these devotions on the grounds that they dilute the worship of a single and unique Allah. A fatwa issued by the official Saudi body responsible for religious rulings states:
It is impermissible to exaggerate the importance of historical sites and buildings, because this might lead to Shirk [idolatry]. The laypeople may be tempted to believe that such places are blessed, and be driven to commit acts of disbelief. The Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade building over graves and performing Salah (Prayer) by them, for that is a means of Shirk. It is, therefore, obligatory to neglect and abandon such a deed and to warn against it.
Naturally, the most effective way to discourage those practices is to destroy the sites in Mecca where prayer of this sort happens. So, for instance, when archaeologists discovered the house of a descendent of Muhammad, King Fahd had it bulldozed so that it could not become a pilgrimage destination. In 1989, Ahmed Zaki Yamani led a team that excavated the alleged Meccan home of Muhammad and his first wife, Khadijah, near the Grand Mosque. They worked for twenty-four hours to uncover the house and record images of the structure but then filled it with sand, knowing that powerful clergy would consider the entire enterprise blasphemous.
These Wahhabi efforts to obliterate the past have found a ready and wholly modern, or postmodern, ally: the force of commerce. At the same time that Wahhabi clergy have denounced protection of ruins and monuments, the construction industry and its investors have stepped forward to undertake the job of removal. Saudi Arabia’s elite families have leveled historic sites and replaced them with high-priced condominiums, five-star hotels, malls, and parking lots. Their goal is to make money, not to preserve the faithbut the Wahhabi outlook has served them well.
Both motives came together in 2002 with the leveling of the eighteenth-century Ottoman-built Ajyad Fortress and of Bulbul Mountain, the hill on which the fortress stood. The Fortress had been constructed by the Ottomans to protect the nearby Grand Mosque and other Meccan shrines. The landmarks were replaced by the Abraj al-Bait complex, which included the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, six skyscrapers, and a large shopping mall developed in partnership with foreign hotel chains. In a neat unification of profit-making and proper worship, the Abraj al-Bait was built next to the Grand Mosque and promoted as a means to expand capacity for pilgrims coming to Mecca for the hajj. A leading role in the project was taken by the Saudi Binladin Group, which was established by the family whose most famous member was al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two other projects are under way, the Jabal Omar and al-Shamiya developments, which, with Abraj al-Bait, would encircle the Grand Mosque completely as elements of the broader “Makkah development plan.” The Guardian describes Jabal Omar as “a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotelssitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall.”
For faith to reject the historical traces of its most important figures doesn’t make sense to Catholics, of course, who venerate shrines associated with saints and martyrs, but Wahhabi doctrine is clear and simple. Any historic structures and locales that tempt a believer to pray in honor of, or for the intercession of, Islamic figures associated with them must be destroyed. Any practice, however humble and pious, that diverts attention from Allah must be stopped. Another Wahhabi fatwa prohibits ascending Jabal al-Nour or visiting the cave of Hira, the hill and cave where Muhammad is said to have received his first revelations. The good intentions of the climber don’t matter if they aim at the wrong object. The historical value of a school where Muhammad taught Islam counts for nothing if the school becomes an idol, which happens, allegedly, as soon as it is preserved and labeled, visited by pilgrims, and studied by scholars.
The intentions of the bulldozing “renewers” of Mecca are clearly avaricious, in line with many policies of the House of Saud and its religious partners, the Aal al-Sheikh, as the descendants of the eighteenth-century preacher Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab are known. They reveal that commerce is not at all alien to Islam, even among those schools that are less obsessed with the dangers of shirk.
Muhammad was a caravan operator, and Arab traders carried the religion across the seas to regions as distant as Indonesia. But the ambitions of merchants did not previously clash so abruptly with the high status of Mecca as a holy city. The Saudi rulersclergy, politicians, and capitalistshave embarked on a kind of perverse modernization that limits the social progress that comes with modernity but encourages the modern love of gain that Muslims traditionally have condemned. The “merchandizing of Mecca” reflects fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine that promotes cultural vandalism, revealing how comfortable the Saudis are with consumer values of the West.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. Research for this commentary was supported by the Middle East Forum Educational Fund.