By Seema Chishti
September 20, 2014
Mecca: The Sacred City
Author: Ziauddin Sardar
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Pages: 408 pages
Price: Rs 599
A scholarly biography of Mecca is a courageous reminder of its syncretic past
From a book titled Mecca, by a formidable British writer born in Pakistan, you expect the world of Islam to unfold between the covers. Ziauddin Sardar does not disappoint. Through a biography of Mecca, the holiest of holy cities for Muslims and the centre of the Kaa’ba (the ‘Cube’ in Arabic), he takes you on a fascinating journey of Islam. Muslims are supposed to have two kinds of conversations while discussing their faith. One that they have with “others” and another they have amongst themselves, but Sardar’s book allows both to take place simultaneously.
A central theme of the book is how two versions of Islam have struggled for supremacy in Mecca: the “open and inclusive message” preached by Prophet Muhammed and the closed idea of “paradise..(being the) exclusive possession of Muslims”. So, the state of Mecca, a metaphor for the confluence and convergence among the faithful, often typified which version of Islam held sway over the world at that particular time.
Despite a Saudi desire to erase pre-Islamic history and authorise the telling of one story, the author has used the events in Mecca, its pagan origins, the ancient myth of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother Hagar settling there and subsequent battles for the control of the city to script an impressive account.
As a writer, Sardar brings lightness and humour to thorny issues. For instance, the first chapter is about his attempts to do an old world Haj on donkey-back, with a gay donkey whom he names Genghis. Needless to say, the journey has to be abandoned for the highway and its fumes. He writes incisively about the immensely complex and often bloody battle for the Muslim mind after Muhammed’s demise, the formation of sects, the growth of different schools of law and theology and their interplay. There is no dearth of historical detail on the Caliphs, Bedouins, Meccans, spiritual leaders, merchants, Sultans, Indian begums and even camels as they shaped the story of Mecca and its most elaborate ritual.
Mecca’s is not a simple story and never was. It was a centre for pagan faith before Muhammed’s time; the forty-year-old Muhammed found his calling in a cave in the city. But it was also the place that resisted Muhammed’s call initially and forced him to seek refuge in Yathrib, which became known as Medina, very much the cultural and intellectual capital of its time. As home to the Kaa’ba, seven rounds of which are among the five prescriptions for able Muslims, it draws billions of Muslims the world over.
The author outlines how centuries of Meccan life were about being a welcoming confluence for innumerable races, colours and kinds of Muslims, and the city’s fascinating and often troubled journey to a more sectarian present, when non-Muslims are excluded from its bounds. And it is in discussing how the city changed its character that the author truly comes into his own.
The recent disquiet in the Islamic world over suggestions made in August by a Saudi scholar to “relocate” the Prophet’s grave in Medina to a place where it would not be identifiable, without a tombstone, has restarted the debate on how Saudi Arabia’s bid to impose its idea of Islam firmly on Islamic heritage under its control.
Sardar’s book takes this aspect of modern-day Mecca head-on. It is an act of courage to say what he does, especially as a believer, with Mecca as the centre of his own personal and spiritual compass. He speaks of how the symbolic relevance of Mecca — to bring together Muslims from across the world and underline egalitarianism as the cementing bond among Muhammed’s followers, whoever they may be — has been reduced by its present Saudi managers to a “literal monolith.” He speaks of how the current managers of Mecca, have “little regard for anything other than the purity of their literalism, no concern for the history, cultural property, art and culture, debate and dissent, and the diversity and plurality of what Mecca ought to be.”