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THE HISTORY of Islam's holiest city, as Pakistani- born British scholar Ziauddin Sardar's brilliantly reasoned and compellingly written book reveals, is a very bloody one. The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca during the last month of the Islamic calendar, is mandatory for all adult Muslims who are able to, at least once in their lives. For Mecca is where Adam, the first Prophet according to Islam, was buried; it has the Kaaba, which Abraham and his son Ishmael built; it is where Prophet Muhammad had his first revelations. It is the very heart of Islam.

But Sardar writes, not about Mecca ( now officially Makkah), the " state of consciousness, the focus of prayer, the signifier of aspiration for the Divine", but about " a place of human habitation". " To know the history of Mecca is to accept ownership of what actually happened in history.

And there is a great deal in that piece of Earth called Mecca... that is far from ideal, fully prey to all the ills that have bedevilled the reality of Muslim civilisation down through the centuries." Sardar, who once described himself as " a sceptical Muslim", visited Mecca for the first time in 1975. Like all men of his faith, the first glimpse of the Kaaba was overpowering.

" The oxygen drained from my lungs. ' I am here.' The thought reverberated through my body with each gulp of air. ' I am here.'... I stood in awe and wonder, reverence and astonishment, elation and perplexity; a profound sadness and irresistible smile of infinite joy took possession of me simultaneously in a moment that seemed to last for ever." Yet, Mecca: The Sacred City is essentially a lament. The city's story is one of endless wars for its control; of constant intrigue and betrayal within the many families that have ruled Mecca; of fratricide and butchery. Mecca has never been the capital of any Muslim society, not even that of the Prophet himself, who chose Medina over his birthplace. The Umayyad Caliphate established its capital in Damascus, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, and the Ottomans reigned from Istanbul. In between, other great Muslim cities -- Cairo, Tunis, Grenada, Samarkand, Bukhara, Delhi -- rose and fell. But the great achievements of these places had little impact on Mecca.

The great and the good, the powerful and the wealthy, came to Mecca to heap largesse and pray, and then went home.

The permanent residents had their own worldly concerns that they pursued in ways far removed from the sublime ideals that the rest of the Muslim world was constructing around the idea of Mecca.

The Meccans, traditionally merchants, remained so, enriching themselves from the pilgrims who visited the city. They also frequently ambushed and looted pilgrim caravans. The city never became a centre of art, culture or science -- the Meccans were not interested in such matters.

Nawab Sikandar Begum, ruler of the Bhopal princely state, performed the pilgrimage in 1864, and described the city as " wild", " dreary" and " repulsive". ( She was treated with extreme discourtesy by the Sharif of Mecca.) Other foreign visitors remarked on its filthiness, and the " indolence" and " ignorance" of the Meccans. The only Mughal king who sent any money to Mecca was Aurangzeb, but only a small amount; he was convinced the holy city's rulers were thoroughly corrupt.

F inally, in the early 20th century, the House of Saud, belonging to the extremely puritanical Wahhabi sect, conquered Mecca, and there it has remained. But Sardar is appalled by what successive Saudi kings have done to the city. Nearly all historical sites have been demolished to make way for high- rise condominiums, seven- star hotels and malls which tower over the Kaaba. Spirituallyoriented Meccans call their city " Saudi Las Vegas". The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, has been turned into a block of toilets.

The city's current masters lack " any aesthetic sensitivity", writes Sardar, " so that the underlying theme of naked power and wealth- driven consumer excess is brazenly exposed for all to see, devoid of saving graces." The idea of Mecca, the place of eternal harmony, has always been an idea, never really true in its earthly manifestation. Yet it resides in the heart of every true Muslim and will continue to, ever unblemished.

MECCA: THE SACRED CITY BY ZIAUDDIN SARDAR, BLOOMSBURY; ` 599 Nowadays, spirituallyoriented Meccans have begun calling their city ' Saudi Las Vegas' A LAMENT FOR THE HOLY CITY Historical sites in Mecca are making way for hotels and malls towering over the Kaaba.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Nov 23, 2014
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