Daily Trust (Abuja)

23 November 2012

Nigeria: Re - Hajj and the Saudis

column

I have been informed that some rejoinders to the three columns on Hajj and the Saudis have sought to explain away the contents by alluding to some figment of their imagination. It is said that if you have no point to make but you still feel you have to make it, the best way is 'to try and give them something to deny.' I won't be drawn into all that; but I wish only to say that there was nothing Shiite in or about what I wrote.

What I said in essence was that the Haramayn and the legacy of the Holy Prophet [SAW] were being systematically destroyed as a deliberate policy by the Saudis; and, as a specific example, I pointed out that the holy residence of the Holy Prophet [SA] had been turned into a public toilet!

Those who wished to oppose what I wrote and destroy the argument I made ought to have done one of two things. One, they should have tried to show that what I said was not true, which none of them attempted to do; or, two, they should have shown how the destruction was in the better interest of Islam, which not even the most inveterate Prophet-hater would have attempted to do. Instead they just said it was all Shiite without showing how or why, and without even explaining what that is supposed to mean. Obviously, this is a very unscientific way of trying to prove a point or arguing against a proposition.

These writers don't even seem to realise that, by ascribing all concern shown about the fate of the Haramayn and the legacy of the Holy Prophet [SAW] to Shiites, they only succeed in portraying Sunnis and themselves, if they are Sunnis, as unconcerned. But what will they say about Damian Thompson of The Telegraph and Jerome Taylor of The Independent in the UK who wrote the following two articles in their newspapers on November 2 and October 26, 2012? Are they also Shiites?

Damian Thompson: Saudis are bulldozing Islam's heritage--Imagine that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus - has been taken over by Cromwellian Puritans. The new owners of the shrine plan to send bulldozers in, replacing the old church with a monstrous building resembling a concrete spaceship. This is so pilgrims can pray without being distracted by "superstitious" icons. Also, the Old City will be buried under hotels that make Vegas look like Venice.

It wouldn't happen, would it? Christians would fight to the death to preserve Jerusalem. So would Jews and Muslims. And, for once, they'd have the support of secular politicians and scholars, horrified by the prospect of an act of cultural vandalism unprecedented in modern times.

Unprecedented until now, that is. The long-cherished ambition of Saudi Arabia's ruling Wahhabi sect to smash up the ancient buildings of Mecca and Medina is nearing fruition.

In Mecca, the house of one of Mohammed's wives has been demolished to make space for public lavatories. His birthplace may disappear, too, as part of King Abdullah's scheme to complement the skyscrapers and shopping malls with a Grand Mosque fashioned from the same materials as a multi-storey car park in Wolverhampton.

As for Islam's second holiest place, the city of Medina, a recent article by Jerome Taylor in the Independent revealed a megalomaniac plan to pull down three 7th-century mosques. Taylor added: "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."

Only a small minority of the world's billion Muslims are Wahhabis, despite the tens of billions of petrodollars spent by the Saudis propagating their creed. (Bosnia, for example, is now littered with Saudi-style mosques, replacing the graceful Ottoman architecture that Wahhabis detest.) Many pilgrims to Mecca are revolted by the marriage of Puritanism and greed they find there. Yet protests are scattered and muted. Why?

One answer is that the House of Saud, though widely hated, is also feared: its wealth and terrorist connections make it unlikely that, say, a Pakistani politician would speak openly about the desecration of the Hajj.

The West can hardly complain about such gutlessness: this year's Hajj exhibition at the British Museum was creepily sanitised - no mention of bulldozers or the 2,000ft clock tower built right next to the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped building that is the centrepiece of Islamic devotions.

But what sticks in the craw is the hypocrisy of Muslims who throw a fit if Israeli archaeologists carry out non-intrusive work underneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, "Islam's third holiest place", as we're constantly reminded. Such anger would be more convincing if the first and second holy sites weren't being ploughed up by a police state. Likewise, are cartoons of Mohammed really more offensive than reducing the remains of his life to rubble?

Jerome Taylor: Medina: Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam's history--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.

Continued on page 56

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."

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