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4 December 2014

Las Vegas of Arabia: Ziauddin Sardar’s heartfelt biography of Mecca

Mecca was the city of Sardar’s childhood dreams, the ideal Muslim polity of humility and submission to God, and a community of faith. Today, under Saudi rule, it has been “remade in the image of . . . wealth and imperial splendour”.

By Zachary Karabell

Mecca: the Sacred City 
Ziauddin Sardar
Bloomsbury, 410pp, £25

We are embroiled today in a global debate about the nature of Islam. By “we” I mean just about anyone, from cable television and pundits in the United States who decry Islam, to the denizens of various European countries questioning whether Islam is compatible with modernity, to civil wars within Muslim-majority states such as Iraq and Syria. This debate is old, but it continues to burn hot.

Ziauddin Sardar enters only elliptically into this fray, but that makes his disquisitive (and rather long) history of the holy city of Mecca that much more powerful and instructive. Sardar has a storied career as a commentator and academic. He also professes to a lifelong love affair with the city, one that began when he was a child, intensified during five years spent working with a Saudi research centre studying the evolving nature of the Hajj, and has never faded – even as Mecca has undergone great and, in his view, destructive changes that have rendered it “defiled, polluted, culturally arid and surrounded by corruption”.

Mecca was the city of Sardar’s childhood dreams, the ideal Muslim polity of humility and submission to God, and a community of faith. Today, under Saudi rule, it has been “remade in the image of . . . wealth and imperial splendour” as a “Saudi Las Vegas”.

There is no small irony in the city’s transformation into a gaudy Muslim-only tourist attraction, given that it has occurred under the puritanical Wahhabi Islam preferred by the Saudi royal family. Wahhabism is the precursor of much of today’s radical Islam, a strain that emerged in the 18th century in reaction to the idea that, as Sardar writes, Muslims “had grown corrupt, superstitious and degenerate”, and were therefore in need of purification, through reformed practices and often by the sword.

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The alliance between the Wahhabis and the House of Saud helped King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad unify the Arabian Peninsula and become ruler and guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Today the millions of pilgrims discover luxury hotels and the same churn of consumerism that can be found in any high-end shopping mall in the west. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is wide. Sardar wants to explore not only how this happened, but why.

The result is a book that recounts 14 centuries of Mecca’s history, sometimes in excessive detail. It may be that the holy shrine of the Kaaba – the cubic structure that sits at the heart of the city and at the literal and metaphorical centre of the Muslim world – has undergone a continual cycle of damage and destruction, first from warring factions (and the elements) and then from commensurate rebuilding and refashioning. But the minutiae of those changes, along with the ebb and flow of various dynasties and local clans that have ruled the city as vassals of distant empires, will make challenging reading for all but the most faithful devotees of microhistory.

Yet what allows the book to rise above its occasional lapses into a history of who-did-what-when is the power and poetry of the author’s voice. Mecca, in Sardar’s account, is both a place and a synecdoche for Islam. The city of his early pilgrimages “remains secure” even though it bears scars from its messy, violent history and corrupt present.

And its history has been stunningly violent, as the scene of the first wars between Muhammad and the dominant Quraysh tribe, which tried to crush him, followed by uprisings, rebellions and tribal wars. For centuries, pilgrims were robbed and extor­ted by local Bedouin: Sardar laments the decision by the Umayyad dynasty early in Muslim history to forbid entry to the city to all but believers, thereby rejecting Muhammad’s true legacy and the early community as one “not exclusively Muslim but a social compact among people of different faiths”. Mecca thereby became inward-looking, and not, as Sardar believes it could have been, a place where faith grew and deepened rather than hardened and ossified.

And yet it remains a powerful symbol and potent precedent. “What Mecca does is echoed throughout the Muslim world . . . Everything that has happened in Mecca since the time of the Prophet tells us a great deal about Muslims themselves.” The vicis­situdes of history – violence and peace, arrogance and humility, community and divisions – are in the marrow of Mecca and human experience. Sardar understands that. He recognises that his ideal of the place, as the crucible of Islam that created a template of concord and power, never quite existed and certainly does not now. By unpacking the messy history, he exposes the yawning gap between the image of the place and the living city inhabited by living people, as it always has been.

Finally, there is the sheer power of a man of belief publishing a book about the complexities of his faith and its adherents. Too much of our current discussion (and past battles) reduces believers to cardboard figurines that bear little resemblance to actual people. Sardar presents the sordid and painful legacy of the past – along with moments of sublime transcendence – refracted through the story of Mecca. He does so as a person attuned to the kaleidoscopic reality of being alive. Mecca may be long and a bit dense in parts, but so is life. And few books celebrate life, with joy and sadness, quite like this one does. 

Zachary Karabell is a historian and economist. His books include “People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West” (John Murray, £9.99)