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Heritage, pilgrimage and the war on history

February 08, 2013

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.