Destruction of historic Mecca under Saudi Trusteeship

Long ago, I saw my father try to dissuade the painting of a sandstone monument, green and white for a religious celebration. He extolled the beauty and value of the original historic architecture, but did not succeed before the onslaught of misperceived beautification and progress. That was nothing compared to the demolition of the most precious old structures in the heart of Mecca and Medina by the Saudi government. Failure to protect them from destruction would be the biggest tragedy for the Islamic architectural heritage.

Most rulers build monuments to themselves lest no one may remember them once they leave this temporal realm. Islamic ethos enjoins a person, particularly those in power to be humble and do good, without personal aggrandizement. The best way to celebrate and understand this simple truth is the exposition and preservation of the humble simple buildings that the leaders of early Islam lived in.

Muslims pay homage to, and follow the tradition of the Prophet the best they can. After the Quran, the most important source of Islamic law is the collection of the traditions of the Prophet. Of all the Islamic monuments, what could be more valuable than the preservation of the structures and the setting in which the Prophet and his early followers lived? With the modern methods of Archaeology, the bricks, mortar and the palm fronds could speak volumes about the invaluable past.

Within 20 years after the death of the Prophet the center of power of the Islamic empires shifted from the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Mecca and Medina as the backwaters, only visited by pilgrims overcoming hazardous journey once a year during the Hajj. Serendipitously this neglect preserved the old architecture and by lanes, very close to the original with some changes such as expansion of the courtyard around Kaba, by the Ottoman government in the 19th century.

Flush with Petro-dollars for the last few decades, the Saudis have embarked on building modern cities, which is not only their right, but a duty to help their citizens towards progress, but it does not have to be achieved by destruction of an invaluable past.

The problem is, that under the Saudi interpretation of Islam, they are earful that some Muslims in their ignorance would be overcome with love and awe that historic sites may invoke, leading to idolatrous thoughts. Therefore they are opposed to the preservation of the old historic structures. In effect, their fears overwhelm the valuable history of the Islamic beginnings.

The Muslims, the world over, are oblivious to the drone of the bulldozers destroying forever the most precious historical sites of Islam. Some lone voices have been raised, but are lost in the din of daily living of ordinary Muslims. The intellectuals are more concerned with the struggle of modernists and medievalists. This is one issue all can and should come to gather to save the most precious heritage.

In an article "Developers and purists erase Mecca’s history", the author, Laith Abou-Ragheb quotes, Sami Angawi, an expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, "1,400-year-old buildings from the early Islamic period risk being demolished to make way for high rise towers for Muslims flocking to perform the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city." He added, "Angawi estimated that over the past 50 years at least 300 historical buildings had been leveled in Mecca, and Medina, a Holy City containing the prophet’s tomb."

What was preserved for almost 1400 years, often in poverty and neglect, is being bulldozed for a parking lot or a tall building replacing the historic heart of the city, under the trusteeship of the Saudi government.

Angawi’s Hajj Research Center, founded in 1975 studies Mecca and Medina’s rich history. According to Ragheb," Angawi claims to have identified a home of the Prophet Mohammad, but is reluctant to publicize its location fearing it would be demolished like Dar al Arqam — the first school in Islam where the prophet taught."

Civilizations rise and fall, Earthly powers come and go, at best leaving a legacy of good deeds and responsible trusteeship of their ephemeral jurisdiction. Early Muslim Caliphs knew this simple truth, and did not destroy earlier structures, not only in the cities of Mecca or Medina, but even the Churches in Jerusalem.

The need for any modern metropolis to prosper and grow is quite understandable. Mecca is more than a Metropolis. It is the temporal geographic heart of the Islamic world. Almost 1400 years ago, according to Muslim belief, God in his wisdom chose Mecca as the earthly pivot, to send the light of Islam to all the peoples of the world. Thus in a manner of speaking the religious and historical sites in Saudi Arabia are the heritage of not only the Muslims, but world as well.

Enlightened governments around the world have preserved the old cities, and have benefited by the enormous tourist trade generated. To relieve the congestion and accommodate growth, they have built gleaming satellite towns, maintaining the cultural and emotional old city for the generations to come.

With the modern ease of travel, Mecca is overwhelmed by about 4 million pilgrims during the Hajj. The need for growth and new accommodations is obvious. Though not easy but solutions can be found. One solution could be, building satellite towns at the periphery, with proper conveyance to the heart of the city.

For the best solutions to emerge, the first step should be an evaluation of the historic heart of Mecca and Medina by a commission of reputable archaeologists and historians. Based on their report a high-powered panel of well recognized architects and town planners should study the problem and come up with recommendations for growth.

The concern of the Saudi government to discourage the idolatrous attitude of some Muslims towards the relics associated with the Prophet is quite understandable. It is important to discourage it, but destroying our precious heritage because of less than perfect understanding of some Muslims, would be a great loss to the Islamic civilization, ethos, history and the future generations of Muslims. Destruction of the most precious sites in Islam for fear of idolatry by some, is akin to killing a child for fear that he may grow up to be less than pious. Instead of fearing, the idolatry of the historic structures, they could be used as instructional tools for the upcoming generations.

Muslims of the world ought to strongly urge [1] the Saudi Government to embark on a modern city planning of Mecca, Medina and other important historical sites. While the enlightened world is engaged in unearthing lost historical sites, the most precious Islamic sites are being destroyed. Future generations of Muslims would forever be grateful to the vision of those who understood the importance of preserving precious history, or curse our generation, who kept quiet, while the temporary custodians demolished their heritage in a few decades of their trusteeship.

Related Petition:

"Stop the destruction of the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in Makkah"