Medina: Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam’s history
Authorities are building a mosque so big it will hold 1.6m people – but are demolishing irreplaceable monuments to do itJEROME TAYLOR FRIDAY 26 OCTOBER 2012
Three of the world’s oldest mosques are about to be destroyed as Saudi Arabia embarks on a multi-billion-pound expansion of Islam’s second holiest site. Work on the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, where the Prophet Mohamed is buried, will start once the annual Hajj pilgrimage ends next month. When complete, the development will turn the mosque into the world’s largest building, with the capacity for 1.6 million worshippers.
But concerns have been raised that the development will see key historic sites bulldozed. Anger is already growing at the kingdom’s apparent disdain for preserving the historical and archaeological heritage of the country’s holiest city, Mecca. Most of the expansion of Masjid an-Nabawi will take place to the west of the existing mosque, which holds the tombs of Islam’s founder and two of his closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar.
Just outside the western walls of the current compound are mosques dedicated to Abu Bakr and Umar, as well as the Masjid Ghamama, built to mark the spot where the Prophet is thought to have given his first prayers for the Eid festival. The Saudis have announced no plans to preserve or move the three mosques, which have existed since the seventh century and are covered by Ottoman-era structures, or to commission archaeological digs before they are pulled down, something that has caused considerable concern among the few academics who are willing to speak out in the deeply authoritarian kingdom.
“No one denies that Medina is in need of expansion, but it’s the way the authorities are going about it which is so worrying,” says Dr Irfan al-Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. “There are ways they could expand which would either avoid or preserve the ancient Islamic sites but instead they want to knock it all down.” Dr Alawi has spent much of the past 10 years trying to highlight the destruction of early Islamic sites.
With cheap air travel and booming middle classes in populous Muslim countries within the developing world, both Mecca and Medina are struggling to cope with the 12 million pilgrims who visit each year – a number expected to grow to 17 million by 2025. The Saudi monarchy views itself as the sole authority to decide what should happen to the cradle of Islam. Although it has earmarked billions for an enormous expansion of both Mecca and Medina, it also sees the holy cities as lucrative for a country almost entirely reliant on its finite oil wealth.
Heritage campaigners and many locals have looked on aghast as the historic sections of Mecca and Medina have been bulldozed to make way for gleaming shopping malls, luxury hotels and enormous skyscrapers. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of the 1,000-year-old buildings in the two cities have been destroyed in the past 20 years.
In Mecca, the Masjid al-Haram, the holiest site in Islam and a place where all Muslims are supposed to be equal, is now overshadowed by the Jabal Omar complex, a development of skyscraper apartments, hotels and an enormous clock tower. To build it, the Saudi authorities destroyed the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress and the hill it stood on. Other historic sites lost include the Prophet’s birthplace – now a library – and the house of his first wife, Khadijah, which was replaced with a public toilet block.
Neither the Saudi Embassy in London nor the Ministry for Foreign Affairs responded to requests for comment when The Independent contacted them this week. But the government has previously defended its expansion plans for the two holy cities as necessary. It insists it has also built large numbers of budget hotels for poorer pilgrims, though critics point out these are routinely placed many miles away from the holy sites.
Until recently, redevelopment in Medina has pressed ahead at a slightly less frenetic pace than in Mecca, although a number of early Islamic sites have still been lost. Of the seven ancient mosques built to commemorate the Battle of the Trench – a key moment in the development of Islam – only two remain. Ten years ago, a mosque which belonged to the Prophet’s grandson was dynamited. Pictures of the demolition that were secretly taken and smuggled out of the kingdom showed the religious police celebrating as the building collapsed.
The disregard for Islam’s early history is partly explained by the regime’s adoption of Wahabism, an austere and uncompromising interpretation of Islam that is vehemently opposed to anything which might encourage Muslims towards idol worship.
In most of the Muslim world, shrines have been built. Visits to graves are also commonplace. But Wahabism views such practices with disdain. The religious police go to enormous lengths to discourage people from praying at or visiting places closely connected to the time of the Prophet while powerful clerics work behind the scenes to promote the destruction of historic sites.
Dr Alawi fears that the redevelopment of the Masjid an-Nabawi is part of a wider drive to shift focus away from the place where Mohamed is buried. The spot that marks the Prophet’s tomb is covered by a famous green dome and forms the centrepiece of the current mosque. But under the new plans, it will become the east wing of a building eight times its current size with a new pulpit. There are also plans to demolish the prayer niche at the centre of mosque. The area forms part of the Riyadh al-Jannah (Garden of Paradise), a section of the mosque that the Prophet decreed especially holy..
“Their excuse is they want to make more room and create 20 spaces in a mosque that will eventually hold 1.6 million,” says Dr Alawi. “It makes no sense. What they really want is to move the focus away from where the Prophet is buried.”
A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs – and endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al Sheikh – called for the dome to be demolished and the graves of Mohamed, Abu Bakr and Umar to be flattened. Sheikh Ibn al-Uthaymeen, one of the 20th century’s most prolific Wahabi scholars, made similar demands.
“Muslim silence over the destruction of Mecca and Medina is both disastrous and hypocritical,” says Dr Alawi. “The recent movie about the Prophet Mohamed caused worldwide protests… and yet the destruction of the Prophet’s birthplace, where he prayed and founded Islam has been allowed to continue without any criticism.”
Mecca and Medina in numbers
12m The number of people who visit Mecca and Medina every year
3.4m The number of Muslims expected to perform Hajj (pilgrimage) this year
60,000 The current capacity of the Masjid an-Nabawi mosque
1.6m The projected capacity of the mosque after expansion
Why don’t more Muslims speak out against the wanton destruction of Mecca’s holy sites?
Saudi Arabia’s Wahabists are tearing down buildings that have links to the Prophet and replacing them with skyscrapers and shopping mallsJEROME TAYLORSunday 28 October 2012
Muslims are often criticised for not speaking out more vocally on key issues that affect their community. Barely a week goes by without the media asking why community leaders aren’t more vocal in condemning button topics such as terrorism or violence against women.
It’s a difficult balance and often the criticisms are unfair. One the one hand ordinary Muslims cannot be expected to answer for everything that is done in their name. But at the same time silence and reticence from a majority simply allows the vocal minority to have disproportionate influence on how Islam is both practiced and perceived by the rest of the world.
One area that you might think would see Muslims speaking out with one voice is the wholesale archaeological and historical destruction of Islam’s birthplace. Over the past twenty years, fuelled by their petro-dollars and intolerant Wahabi backers, the Saudi authorities have embarked on cultural vandalism of breath-taking proportions.
Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam, are being systematically bulldozed to make way for gleaming sky scrapers, luxury hotels and shopping malls. The Saudis insist that the expansion of these two cities is vital to make way for the growing numbers of pilgrims in a rapidly expanded and inter-connected world. And they’re right.
But does it really need to be done in a way where luxury apartments and $500-a-night rooms now overlook the Ka’aba in Mecca, the one place on earth that all Muslims are supposed to be equal?
Most appallingly dozens of early Islamic sites – including those with a direct link to the Prophet himself – have been wiped off the map. The situation is so bad that the Washington based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 percent of the millennium old buildings in the two cities have been destroyed in the past twenty years.
Much of this cultural vandalism is inspired by Wahabism – the austere interpretation of Islam that is the Saudi kingdom’s official religion. Wahabis are obsessed with idol worship and believe visiting graves, shrines or historical sites that are associated with the Prophet encourages shirq (the worship of false gods). The rampant commercialism meanwhile is inspired by something much simpler – greed.
With a few notable exceptions the destruction of Mecca and Medina has largely passed unchallenged
Muslim silence on this issue isn’t just cowardly, it’s deeply hypocritical. When an obscure group of foam-at-the-mouth Islamophobes got together in the United States to make an utterly pointless and deliberately provocative film about the Prophet Mohammad, or when a group of Danish cartoonists exercised their democratic right to lampoon a religious leader and the creeping self-censorship of the European press, protests broke out around the world.
At Friday prayers, imams and sheikhs wasted little time in giving rousing speeches about how Islam was being sullied and the Prophet insulted. The mobs came out, people died (mostly Muslims).
How many of those imams have bothered to get animated about what has happened in Mecca and Medina? How many are outraged that the house of Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah was pulled down and replaced with a block of public toilets, or that five of the seven mosques marking the Battle of the Trench outside Medina have been destroyed, or that religious police cheered when a mosque linked to the Prophet’s grandson was dynamited? It’s politically a lot more convenient to blame infidels for disrespecting your religion’s founder than it is to point the finger of blame at your own kind.
But it’s not just the Muslim world that has kept mum. When the Taliban – fuelled by same anti-idol zealotry that burns within Wahabis – blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas the world was incensed. Governments spoke out, academics were outraged and column inches filled up. With a few notable exceptions the destruction of Mecca and Medina has largely passed unchallenged.
Partly that’s down to the enormous influence Saudi Arabia wields. As the gate keeper to the cradle of Islam (since 1986 the Saudi monarchy has modestly awarded itself the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques), it controls who gets to go on the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. Muslim countries are terrified that any overly critical statements about what is happening in the Hejaz might lead to a reduction in pilgrim quotas.
Although the Muslim media has been pretty shamefully silent, credit should go to Al Jazeera who did manage to get in and film a documentary last yearabout the archaeological destruction of Mecca.
Equally, in the West, archaeologists and historians – who should be on the front lines of a no-cultural-destruction-of-Islam protest – keep quiet because they won’t be allowed in to the Kingdom again if they speak up, whilst governments prefer to keep the Saudis onside because of their enormous oil wealth and supposed commitment to the so-called war on terror.
Governments prefer to keep the Saudis onside because of their enormous oil wealth
Inside Saudi Arabia itself there is a mixture of opinions. The wealthy elite think little beyond the gleaming shopping malls and hotels that keep them supplied with fat profits and luxury goods.
But there is anger among many locals in Mecca and Medina who have looked on with horror at what has happened to their cities, especially among those who have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for this brave new world.
The difficulty, of course, is that in a highly autocratic country where women still don’t have the right to drive and opposition to the Saud monarchy is ruthlessly supressed, there are bigger fish to fry. Archaeology and history come second to basic personal freedoms.
But hope is not lost because people do care. When I first started investigating this subject a little over a year ago I wasn’t sure how Muslims would react. Last September we published a piece in which I described how Mecca was turning into a gaudy Las Vegas. Within hours it had gone viral. All across the Muslim world news sites, bloggers and readers were reposting the article. It stayed at the top of our most read list for weeks whilst on Facebook alone it has been reposted 37,000 times. And the response we got was overwhelmingly positive.
Muslims were horrified by what was happening and they wanted to know what they could do. A few months later I was asked to give a talk on my research by the City Circle, a group of mainly young, professional Muslims who meet on a weekly basis. The crowd was as mixed as any London Islamic audience – Salafis in their three quarter length trousers and long beards, hippy looking Sufis, women in headscarves and veils, women without headscarves and beardless men in their pin-striped city suits. I expected the more orthodox members to defend what was happening in Saudi Arabia, instead everyone seemed to be equally upset.
After the talk I remember one young Saudi woman in a black abaya coming up to me with tears in her eyes. “They are literally destroying the birthplace of Islam,” she said. “This is the place where the Prophet lived and prayed. We have to do something.”
Only Muslims will be able to save what little is left of the early Islamic heritage within Mecca and Medina. But I hope for both their own benefit – and the wider world’s – that they are successful.