What happens when cities that owe their prominence and wealth to religion undergo uncontrolled growth, proposed redesign, or decline? Muslims around the world have asked serious questions over the past three years about the future of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam. Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, is where Muslims turn in prayer, and is the object of a pilgrimage (hajj), obligatory, at least once, for every Muslim who can afford it.
But residents of Mecca and Medina have both been repeatedly disturbed, over the past 200 years, by the precepts of Wahhabism, a totalitarian interpretation of Islam and the state sect in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi beliefs, which are new in Islam, are so odd that explaining them to non-Muslims is a demanding task. Acolytes of Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine condemn the preservation of historic sites associated with Muhammad, arguing that prayer at structures associated with the prophet and his companions, as well as the maintenance of grave markers, shrines, and tombs, are forbidden "idol-worship." In the words of a Saudi official who requested anonymity, Wahhabi clerics want to be assured that architectural remnants of early Islam "don't become places of worship." Stimulated by this conviction, the Wahhabis sacked and destroyed Mecca in the 19th century, causing extensive physical devastation and killing many people.
Similarly, when the Saudi royal family and their Wahhabi partisans seized Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, they demolished the Jannat al-Baqi or Orchard of Heaven, a cemetery in the latter city where most of Muhammad's family and companions were buried. This act of vandalism continues to grate, especially on adherents of Shia Islam. In 2007 some thousand Muslim protesters rallied at the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington, denouncing the condition of the famous cemetery, as well as "Wahhabi fascism." Another such demonstration in Washington is currently being planned.
Wahhabi attacks on old Islamic architecture are prolific. Another demand incomprehensible to Westerners is repeatedly heard - that the mausoleum of Muhammad in Medina be partly or wholly razed as an "idol." The house where Muhammad was born was turned into a cattle market, then a library. But recently something new was announced: the prophet's birthplace would be rebuilt as modern, Western-style hotel space, timeshares, and parking facilities. These structures would be operated as the Le Meridien Towers, financed by the well-known international hotel chain.
Mecca has already become, thanks to Wahhabi "purification," a holy city with few holy monuments. But Saudi developers are bent on a "Manhattanization" of Mecca and Medina that would surround the religious monuments in both cities with elaborate and intrusive construction. The main project in Mecca, known as the Jabal Omar Towers, will comprise seven apartment blocks (each of 35 stories), two 50-floor hotels, a four-level retail concourse, and four more 15-story hotel blocks. Promotional material from the Malaysian design firm responsible for it, T. R. Hamzah and Yeang, specifically advertises accessibility and residential views overlooking Mecca's Grand Mosque.
Is the transformation of Mecca and Medina motivated by a distorted desire to modernize the Saudi kingdom? More progressive actions would include proclamation of general religious freedom for the Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists who, as expatriates, now make up a quarter of the Saudi populace. Christians are only allowed to pray in their own homes, but Jews remain banned from the country, except for a few invited by the Saudi authorities for purposes of "dialogue." And Christians in the kingdom are not limited to highly-paid energy technicians from the U.S., Britain, and Canada. They also include great numbers of domestic workers from the Philippines and South Korea.
By contrast, the countries known to Saudi dissidents as "the crescent of normality," extending from Kuwait to Yemen, include Christian churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples. Bahrain and Yemen even shelter Jewish synagogues with small Arabic-speaking congregations.
Continued in Part 2...
Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor to TCS Daily, is executive director, and Irfan Al-Alawi is international director, of the Center for Islamic Pluralism at www.islamicpluralism.org.