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Heritage, pilgrimage and the war on history


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In the Grand Mosque of Mecca, is an elegant, Ottoman portico from the 17th century. In the latest development plan developed for the city of Mecca by Saudi authorities, the portico has been ordered destroyed. Its demolition, a familiar sight in Mecca, would have proceeded unnoticed, were it not for an objection raised by a Saudi historian based in the United Kingdom who raised his voice against what he saw was an ordered evisceration of Meccan history. Irfan Al-Alawi, Director of the Islamic Heritage Foundation described what the Saudi Government is doing in Mecca as an act of “cultural vandalism”, a systematic destruction of the heritage of Islam. In response, Mohammad Jomaa of the Bin Laden Group that is overseeing the redevelopment of Mecca simply said that the destruction of the portico was justified because it would triple the amount of space available.

Of course, it is not only the portico that stands to be slayed by Saudi bulldozers. In the past several years, several other historic monuments in Mecca and Medina have fallen to rubble when the space argument is deployed by the Saudis. At the end of October last year, as the Hajj season was coming to a close, Saudi authorities announced that they were planning to raze the shrine of the Holy Prophet in order to accommodate a 6 billion dollar expansion of Masjid-Al-Nabawi in Medina. Also not accommodated in the new plan was the Masjid Ghamama where the Holy Prophet was said to have given his first Eid sermon. Back in Mecca, the Masjid al Haram compound is dwarfed by the Abraj Al Bait skyscraper apartment and hotel complex, whose incongruous and ugly clock tower looks down on pilgrims inside the mosque. This apartment complex was built by destroying the Ottoman era Aiyad Fort and the hill it stood upon. The argument then as now, was that the demands of now, of new hotels and glitzier malls, far outweigh the concerns of preserving the past.

Technically speaking, since both Mecca and Medina fall within the nation state boundaries of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the rest of the world’s Muslims, history loving or not, have limited rights over what happens to the structures within the two cities. Just like no Hajj pilgrimage is possible without a Saudi visa, no objection against the taking down of mosques and porticoes and forts is possible as a non-Saudi Muslim. Given this equation enabled by a world divided up into nation states, Saudi sovereignty is the last judgment over what is history and what is heresy and whether all vestiges of the past, from the holiest to the most ancient are replaced by clock towers and luxury hotels.

Because the most frequent argument employed by the Saudi Arabian Government in favor of destroying ancient sites is space for pilgrims; one method to protest against the destruction of history, and argue for the preservation of the past would have been for the world’s Muslims to protest such desecration by not participating in the pilgrimage. Since this is impossible, clashing as it does with the religious duties of the individual Muslim, the Saudis trump card in determining what counts as part of Islamic history and what can be relegated to the dust is revealed.  The destruction of a portico or a part of a mosque or an ancient tomb in this sense is not simply as a matter of difference of opinion but as an analogy of the tension between individual salvation and collective action.

Individual salvation for the believing Muslim dictates the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime, however altered with towers and tourists and malls the holy space designated for spiritual seeking may be. To rebel against the keepers of the space, against their capitalist judgments of the worth of this or that, of the aesthetics of holiness or the sanctity of preserving the sites that tell the story, means a rebellion of the collective that the individual, which in the calculations of faith and duty the individual Muslim cannot afford. Trapped in this conundrum, the old towers and porticoes will fall, like the mosques and tombs before them and Mecca and Medina will be forever changed to accommodate the salvation of the millions that pass through them.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

afzaalkhan Feb 08, 2013 12:22pm
When you are gonna write abt qurtaba? Oh wait that would annoy ur liberal leanings. Muslims go to hujj to perform ibabad for ALLAH the mosque is there so go and perform that what is prescribed and spare us the history love. We should not develop anything because it destroys history what nonsense
mazharuddin Feb 08, 2013 03:49pm
Writer is a Phd candidate in political philosophy and not a candidate in Islamic History. She will find much manipulation and falsehood in modern Islamic history that causing defaming Muslims and their religion as well as research work is banned. This tiny globe is not to have constructions for monuments but for the betterment of humans to live and have other uses, and to bring changes as per the need. Writer would be well aware that according to Muslim traditions the pictures and photos of living animals and humans is prohibited to save people from believing in falsehood. Secondly Muslims heritage is their culture and belief i.e to Believe in God, His Worships, doing good and avoiding evil. Rest all humans are equal, no one sacred, all have to appear before God on the day of judgment. If writer consider her stand as right then she state her opinion why prophet broken idols and cleansed Makkah from idols? several idol worshiping places were broken, were those not heritage? Our prophet strictly advised to only believe in God, praying, Zakat and Haj. Prophet did not advise to save graves and shrines and have festivities and Urs with Qawwali music, processions and congregations etc. and forget research and development work time to time, rely on others' work?. Writers should avoid such articles that spread extremism and mysticism etc.
Keti Zilgish Feb 08, 2013 12:16pm
Let me take this opportunity to assure all concerned that capital has already occupied every mosque the world over. The fact that Prophet Muhammad's father happened to have been the only poor member of his family is of no significance to todays maulanas blatantly recommending the worship of mammon.
Hassan Feb 08, 2013 12:18pm
In the west they preserve each and every stone of their history and we pretty much detroyed it all. Who needs history when u can have fancy clock towers!
Khattak Feb 08, 2013 11:56am
excellent article. I remember my first Hajj in 1994 and the bazzars were on the doorstep pf the two holy mosques. Hajj is about the poor person comming to do Hajj without being left behind by glitzy hotels.
Fazil K. Feb 08, 2013 07:14pm
Well, as everything else, this is the ongoing commercialization of hajj. Why did no Muslim country raise the issue at the Organization of Islamic Countries? Does UNESCO has any say on such heritage sites or is Saudi Arabia an exception (as in many other things)?
Ahsan Feb 08, 2013 07:22pm
sensitive issue.
Maniq Feb 08, 2013 07:59pm
Some might get offended.. but with all due respect, Saudi's are the biggest muslim culprits of present times..
Younus Ibrahim Feb 08, 2013 11:27am
very sad to hear these things. history should be preserved.
Ali Feb 08, 2013 08:06pm
Your argument actually makes sense. If the Saudi government was destroying these historic structures based on the assumption that 'more people' can be accommodated, I would have supported their decision. However, bulldozing these historic sites so that more hotels (like the clock tower) can be built is just plain wrong. Very few people and I repeat very few people can actually afford to stay in these hotels. Rest of the people who are not financially strong don't get any benefit from these activities. They stay in hotels that are quite a distance from Haram. The closer the hotel is to Haram, its rates are much higher.
abbastoronto Feb 08, 2013 07:39pm
Even the secular Americans have a greater respect for their Capital than the Saudis have for the Haram al Sharif. Washington DC has made city laws that effectively prevent a building from being higher than the Washington Monument. But in Mecca, the Haram is dwarfed by the ugly skyscrapers. Next the Saudis would ban the tawaf of the Haram, and make us go around the high-rises, and in cars rather than on foot. For them it will certainly make the Hajj more manageable and faster too.
Asad Feb 08, 2013 02:30pm
I do agree with you on that hideous clock tower.I was there 2 years ago and its a constant distraction while performing the tawaf. Mecca feels like turning into a Vegas strip.Were the Saudis inspired by the London tower?Why can't they expand around the shrine of the Prophet.Why do they have to demolish everything?Sometime it feels like we are being emotionally blackmailed.
Naman Gopal Feb 10, 2013 09:42am
Mr Mazharuddin, sorry if I appear to touch a raw nerve again, but isn't the kaba structure in Makkah not a 'monument'? It seems to be worshipped with people going around it. Accordingly, the Azhar University in Cairo should also be demolished since its Islamic research taking place there could lead into manipulation and falsehood as per your notions. I wonder then whether this is the cause of many ills in Islam today.
Anwar Amjad Feb 09, 2013 12:52am
As a regular visitor to the holy mosques over the years, I really appreciate the development work done by the Saudi Government to facilitate the performance of religious rites and to ensure the safety and comfort of the people. Incidentally it is obligatory for Muslims to perform Hajj once in the lifetime but Umrah is a voluntary worship which many devoted Muslims like to perform as many times as possible. In the month of Ramdan the Grand Mosque of Makkah is sometimes more crowded than during the Hajj period. During Tawaf or circling of Kaaba, bending down to retrieve a slipped shoe could turn out to be a fatal mistake for the person as well as the people around who might be trampled over. It is important to preserve the old buildings for archaeological reasons but the safety of the people should take precedence.
indian Feb 09, 2013 04:55am
..very surprsing to see there is no protest in INDIA & PAKISTAN..when Babri masjid (at the time it is a ruined building,no people in visinity & no prayer was offered & it was loacked for several years) demolished by some hooligans there are so many protests,riotes & still protest is not dying..rediculous..
FT Feb 09, 2013 01:01pm
One may not agree 100 % with the plan but I think comfort of today's pilgrims should override history esp if there is no other way out. Either Ummah agrees to limit no of pilgrims to a certain level despite increase in mulsim population I think there is no other way out. It is great that where within 100 meters radius of Haram only 100) rooms were available earlier, now 5000 plus rooms would be available. During Tawaf it becomes so congested that death by suffocation can happen so saving one muslim's life by increasing tawaf space is more important then preserving history esp if there is no other way.
mazharuddin Feb 09, 2013 01:10pm
Media do not like other view, like to keep in dark.
FT Feb 09, 2013 01:22pm
Cant dig 3 story basements under the mutaaf (Tawaf) or Masjid Nabwi for pilgrims as ventilation and crowd control would be a near impossible task. So the only way is to go up or sideways......(unfortunately cant go up always and there is history if one decides to go sideways) your choice.....
feo Feb 09, 2013 02:19pm
Don't forget that this is nothing new. Only the excuses are. The Saudis have been destroying shrines and Islamic historical monuments for centuries.
Shahpur Feb 09, 2013 03:20pm
Custodian of the Holy places of Islam should be an Organization of World Muslims and not the Saudi Family.
Ashfaq Feb 09, 2013 04:25pm
Anyway excellent article - the world's Muslim Ummah should be made aware of what this clan is doing to the places which are adored by more than a Billion people. The worst thing which happened to the Muslims in the last 250 years is not the end of Caliphate nor the subjugation by the Europeans and now by Americans but the birth of wahabism.
MilesToGo Feb 09, 2013 09:52pm
whose history?
Khanm Feb 10, 2013 05:06am
Hajj and Umra has become a big booming business. It is eight to ten billion dollars industry. It is just the rituals we perform not the true meaning of Hajj and Umra. Khuda kay wastay parda na kabay say utha Zalim , Khaien aysa na wo yahan bhi wohi kafir sanam nik lay.