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Mecca: spiritual sanctum and terrestrial realities

Talmiz Ahmad 

Ziauddin Sardar
Bloomsbury, New Delhi, 2014

408 pages; Rs 599

Muslim history is diverse and complex, and so are the attempts of modern-day Muslims to cope with contemporary challenges. Mecca's history, though interesting and even important, is not the key that Muslims are seeking

Ziauddin Sardar begins his narrative with reflections on the character of the city of Mecca as a metaphysical entity and as the centre of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. Though sensitive to the spiritual allure of the city, he pays greater attention to the terrestrial Mecca where, in his words, "lives were lived, where heroes (and villains) thrived, atrocities were committed, and greed and intolerance were the norm".

In the early years of Islam itself certain historical patterns were established that would resonate through Muslim history: remarkable military and political successes alongside fierce internecine conflicts for power, first within the family, clan and tribe of the prophet himself, and later between rival claimants representing different ethnic origins who had converted to Islam. Soon after the prophet's death, political power shifted out of Arabia and was located successively in different Muslim capitals - Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and finally Istanbul. However, every one of these empires wanted to dominate Mecca as the centre of the Muslim spiritual realm. Though the effective power centre may have been far away, Mecca had its own rulers in the Sharifs, who exercised local authority up to 1925 on the basis of their lineage from the prophet's family.

Mr Sardar devotes a large part of the book to the history of the Sharifs and their interactions with the principal, often competing, Muslim powers of the day. This narrative is replete with conflict, fraud, betrayals and extreme violence. This quest for power was "a mirror of earthly realities" and reflected little care for the special status of the city, or the spiritual needs of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who thronged to Mecca to be in communion with the Almighty.

It is interesting to note that from the 17th century, Indians became the principal foreign community in the city: an Indian architect was involved in the re-construction of the Kaaba, while an Indian prince provided a silver staircase to the door of the Kaaba. In time, as Mr Sardar notes, "Mecca's economy and financial well-being became dependent on the Muslims of India."

Mr Sardar's strongest criticism is directed at modern-day Saudi rule over the holy city. He notes that Saudi rulers have re-shaped the city in terms of their Wahhabi tenets, destroying mausoleums and sacred shrines, and inculcating into their educational curriculum and cultural ethos the most rigid and narrow-minded aspects of Islam. During the re-construction of the Grand Mosque and its environs, a number of luxury properties have been developed on historical sites.

Mr Sardar finally meditates on what the story of the holy city means for Muslims today. He asserts that the closing of Mecca to non-Muslims marks "the closing of the Muslim mind". He regrets that Mecca's ethos has always been traditionalist in doctrinal terms, which he feels has turned Muslims away from rationality and philosophy. Finally, he believes that the neglect - indeed obliteration - of Mecca's history of "factionalism, dissension and violence" has made Muslims ignorant about the unsavoury aspects of their past; only the knowledge of their lived history, as experienced in Mecca, will begin "a critical and more informed consideration of the meaning and understanding of what it means to be human and Muslim in the twenty-first century".

I am afraid I am unable to accept any of Mr Sardar's principal conclusions. The closing of Mecca to non-Muslims, necessitated by real threats of assault and destruction, hardly had a deleterious effect on Muslim thinking given that all other Muslim cities were eclectic and multi-cultural and centres of a thriving intellectual life till the dawn of colonialism. Again, Mecca being a bastion of tradition is hardly surprising given its unique status in Islam. But even then, Mecca hosted a variety of scholars, among them the father of Islamic Sufism, Ibn Arabi. Again, Mecca was also not a dry, soulless city. Travellers' accounts speak of a vibrant and culturally alive place, with a strong tradition of poetry, music, dance and mysticism; as Mr Sardar notes: behind all the political turmoil, "Mecca had a thriving cultural scene with love poetry at its core".

Finally, I cannot agree that a study of the political vicissitudes of Mecca's 1,400-year history is an essential requirement to open up the Muslim mind. The political chicanery and violence witnessed in Mecca have been the norm across the medieval and even the modern world, and no community, town or region has been immune to horrendous fratricidal or identity-based violence. I do not believe that the bloody history of Mecca - what was after all a minor political outpost in Muslim empires - is either unique or enlightening.

There can be no broad-brush historical explanation for the state of the entire Muslim community just as there can be no single panacea. Muslim history is diverse and complex, and so are the attempts of modern-day Muslims to cope with contemporary challenges. Mecca's history, though interesting and even important, is not the key that Muslims are seeking.

The writer is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia

First Published: Mon, November 03 2014. 21:25 IST