Since Islam emerged more than 14 centuries ago, Mecca, near the western coast of the Arabian peninsula, has drawn the interest of the world. For Muslim believers, the city and its sacred mosque—which encompasses a high, cubical structure, the Kaaba—are the focus of spiritual devotion as the qibla, or direction of prayer, and a destination for pilgrimages. For non-Muslims, Mecca has long been enigmatic, as it has been closed to them since early in Islamic history. Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim of Pakistani background, has written an extensive history of Mecca. His panorama is somewhat limited, with attention focused on the great mosque and the Kaaba.
Sardar’s account of Mecca’s origins is based on conventional religious and historical sources, as is his treatment of Muhammad, who would make the city famous. The foundation of the Kaaba has been credited, in Islamic tradition, to Adam, as well as to Abraham and his first son Ishmael (Ismail), progenitor of the Arabs and, through descent from Ismail to Muhammad, of the Muslims. Sardar details how the original association with Abraham, the common originator of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim monotheism, was replaced with a vision of Mecca as a heavenly city in which Adam and Eve dwelt after their expulsion from paradise.
Before the coming of Muhammad and Islam, however, faith in a single omnipotent God (Allah) had been forgotten in Mecca, and it and the Kaaba drew wayfarers worshipping numerous idols. The commerce in pagan pilgrims and festivals was profitable for the Meccans, and in the established, theological narrative, Muhammad (who could neither read nor write) received a message from the Creator through an angel while meditating in a cave on Jabal al-Nur, the “hill of light,” overlooking Mecca. He was to warn the Meccans, his neighbors and kin, against their polytheist practices.
Muhammad’s teaching was not met with enthusiasm, even among his own tribe, the Quraysh, who claimed descent from Abraham and Ismail. Stories of Muhammad’s travails in Mecca, the harassment of his few early followers, his move to Yathrib—a town that became known as Medina (“the city”) after he established himself there—and the ensuing battles between the Meccans and Medinans are essential to Islamic religiosity.
Muhammad and the Medinans conquered Mecca and removed the idols from the precincts of the Kaaba. But the renewal of monotheism in the holy city of the Arabs did not lead to peace: Long chronicles recounted by Sardar involve conflicts among familes, tribes, and other factions in the city, as well as with sectarian rivals from elsewhere, broken by rare periods of tranquility. In addition, successive rulers of Mecca reconstructed the Kaaba and expanded and decorated the great mosque, sometimes after natural disasters that undermined the structures.
Mecca retained its allure as a destination for religious journeys, and, as Sardar portrays, it had a rich cultural environment in which the diverse identities of the hajj pilgrims were crucial. Religious jurists and spiritual Sufis also flocked to Mecca. In a well-known episode involving Islamic metaphysics, the Spanish Muslim Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) went to Mecca for the hajj, stayed in the city for some time, and wrote several of the masterpieces that have contributed to Ibn Arabi’s reputation as “al-Sheikh al-Akbar,” the supreme teacher.
These works, inspired by the environment of the city, include Meccan Revelations, in which Ibn Arabi constructs an elaborate interpretation for the exalted nature of the city, and a collection of odes entitled The Interpreter of Desires. The latter text is extravagant in its praise of an unnamed female, the daughter of Ibn Arabi’s Meccan host, and is a Sufi classic. Its impassioned verses were taken up by the Meccan youth and recited to musical accompaniment. Ibn Arabi was compelled to write a line-by-line commentary in which he denied the physical and sensual content of his poetry and ascribed the love it professed to adoration of the divine.
Sardar’s account of Meccan history shifts distinctly when, at the end of the 18th century, the agitation of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (for whom the Wahhabi sect is named) erupted from Najd, in the desolate interior of Arabia. Like fanatics before them and their imitators today, the Wahhabis condemned as un-Islamic many customs that had become part of the religion. The Wahhabis denounced the Sufis and Shiites, declaring that prayer at shrines as practiced by nearly all Muslims, but especially by the mystics, was revived idolatry and that it, along with music, dancing, and smoking, had contaminated Mecca.