This post is fourth in the series Notes from a Pilgrim.
The story of Islam begins in the mountains. It was in the mountain cave, Hira, so the story goes, that a merchant by the name of Muhammad received his first revelation from God that would begin his two decades of prophethood and the birth of a world religion. The mountain was one of the many rugged peaks that surround the city of Makkah, the birthplace of Muhammad. At the time, Makkah was a mercantile centre and controlled by the powerful Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh also were the gatekeepers of the Ka’bah, the ancient place of monotheistic worship said to have been built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, that had, in the centuries that followed, become a place for worshipping idols under the guardianship of the Quraysh. The Ka’bah stood nestled amid mountains, flanked by the most imposing proof of God’s creation. For millennia, nothing could dwarf it.
When driving from Jeddah airport towards Makkah a solitary figure looms over the horizon. As the car swallows up the road, we draw ever closer to this dark column against the night sky. This is the clock tower of Abraj al-Bait – ‘the Towers of the House’ – a complex of seven skyscraper luxury hotels that dominate the Makkan skyline. Developed by the construction conglomerate, Saudi Binladin Group (founded by the father of Osama Bin Laden), these towers are owned by the Saudi government and cost $15 billion to complete. Today they tower – in action as well as name – over the holiest site in Islam. The Ka’bah, built by the bare hands of prophets, is left in the shadow of the tower that reaches almost two thousand feet high. The complex consists of exclusive hotels, decadent shopping malls and restaurants. It is built only metres from the gates of the Masjid al-Haraam, the mosque that encompasses the Ka’bah.
If this gross juxtaposition of capitalist excess and a holy site seems shocking, perhaps it ought not to be. Makkah’s capitalist present has its roots in the mercantile past of the city; originally a trading hub for merchants from across Arabia and beyond, the Ka’bah offered an extra attraction in the form of a pilgrimage destination. As such, the relationship between religious site and place of commerce has been a long-standing one. Indeed, Muhammad’s decree that Makkah should continue to be a pilgrimage destination for Muslims once polytheism had been suppressed indicates the importance of the city for business and worship, and the meshing of the two. It seems incongruous - however, the very instruction that Makkah should be kept as a Muslim holy site could very well be seen as a politically expedient decision in order to avoid utter decimation of the early Muslims who were outnumbered by the wealthy and well-armed Quraysh, by acknowledging their city and its centrality in Arabian society. Although Muhammad himself was born into this tribe, there was much about their practices that he found troubling: the cheating that accompanied their trade; the practice of slavery; the treatment of orphans; the widespread act of burying young girls alive. Islam was founded as a resistance movement to these practices.
As I stood on the white marble of the Masjid al-Haraam with the towers looming behind me, I wondered how far Muslims had come since the days of those practices that Muhammad sought to eradicate. Although the Quraysh no longer exist as a tribe, it seems as though their legacy lives on in Makkan and Saudi Arabian society. Despite the emphasis placed in the Qur’an on freeing slaves and eradicating the practice, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia only officially abolished slavery in 1964. Furthermore, modern day slavery continues in the most flagrant and distressing of ways. Migrant and trafficked workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Yemen, and many more countries live and serve the Saudi population in appalling conditions. For migrant workers, their passports are usually seized by their employers and they have to ‘work off’ the debt they incurred in travelling to Saudi Arabia. This means having no holidays, minimal and infrequent pay, and a complete absence of human dignity. Trafficked people have no documentation and are often set to work in professional begging rings. Unsurprisingly, there is a stark racial component to this; Saudis have a phrase to describe non-Arabs of darker complexions – ‘miskeen’ – meaning beggar. On the streets, we saw sweepers from Bangladesh. These men who I share ancestry with are bound by familial and financial obligations, enslaved in all but name by the descendants of the Quraysh.
The racism filters into the treatment of pilgrims from those same regions that indentured labourers usually hail from. There is a stark physical separation between pilgrims from South Asia and Arabs, with most South Asians staying in the cheaper accommodation on the outskirts of the city and having to be bussed in. Even on the grounds of the mosque, racial separation was evident with poorer pilgrims from India and Pakistan sitting on the marble slabs outside the mosque, where Arab pilgrims would always get a place within the mosque itself. Guards of the mosque facilitated this, dividing pilgrims in vague ethnic groupings; this was particularly the case in Medina where groups were spilt between 'Arab & Turkish', 'Malaysian & Indonesian' and 'South Asian' and were granted access to holy sites according to their ethnicity. The way in which the guards spoke to my family and me – as visible Bangladeshis – was sickening. But while I could board a plane and leave the city once my pilgrimage was complete, there remain countless Bangladeshi migrant workers who face a much worse daily humiliation, with no option to leave. It did not make Makkah feel holy.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I struggled with Makkah. The daily hypocrisy slapped me in the face, with every rough word I overheard from a Saudi guard to a darker skinned pilgrim, and every time a veiled Arab woman swished past with a designer handbag. Here I was in what was supposed to be one of the holiest sites in the world but all I could see were glass towers and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Rather than spiritual elevation, I felt anger and disillusionment.
“When you’re that high up, who else would you ask for help?”
My parents suggested we travel to the outskirts of the city to see some other historical sites, or what was still left of them. The Saudi government’s systematic destruction of the history - of not just a country but an entire religion – has been well documented. Sites that have been eradicated completely include the house in which Muhammad was born in, the house of his wife Khadija, and the homes of many more early Muslims. Those sites that remain are subject to gross under-investment and inadequate upkeep: the Bilal Masjid in Medina is named after the first muezzin in Islam. Bilal was a black slave who was tortured by his non-Muslim master, until his freedom was bought by Abu Bakr, a later Caliph. It is said that the Prophet Muhammad declared that Bilal would be the second person to enter Heaven. And yet the Saudi government, perhaps in part due to their lack of regard for any historical preservation, or perhaps because the mosque commemorates a black man – racism is so insidious in the country that it is not an exaggeration to suggest this is a factor – has completely underinvested in its upkeep. The mosque is run down and in need of repairs, and opens only for certain prayers – meanwhile the two shopping malls that have been built around it are open all day long. The steps leading up to the mosque have all but entirely crumbled away.
While the repressive religious ideology that the government subscribes to claims that it is in the interests of avoiding the development of sinful false shrines, it is undoubtedly at least in part intended to preserve Makkan hegemony. We took a taxi to Jabal an-Nour, the mountain of the cave of Hira, where Muhammad received his first revelation. As I got out of the car and walked to the foot of the mountain, I felt a sense of claustrophobia lifting. It was huge. The mountain rose upwards, the most imposing feature in the entire horizon, somehow seemingly serene in its ancientness. I understood why it was that Muhammad would come here, to escape from the hue and cry of the city and all its injustices, to reflect on consider what could possibly be a better way of living. The peak seemed to reach almost the clouds. As I peered closer I saw tiny specks of white trailing down the mountain side, and realised these were pilgrims climbing the mountain. I wondered if they were seeking that same hope of a better way, and whether they would receive it. My father turned to me. “When he was that high up, all the way up that mountain, who else but God could he have asked for guidance?” I considered this - how frustrated Muhammad must have been with the society in which he lived, but feeling powerless to do anything about it. I had been feeling similarly frustrated in the preceding days, angered by the treatment of people based on their race, or wealth, or sex.
"There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white - except by piety." – from the Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon.
I thought about how Islam emerged at the outset as a resistance movement against all of these things: to narrow the gap between rich and poor, to abolish oppression of women, to free slaves, to teach that no Arab is better than a non-Arab, and vice versa. And I thought about how Islam has ended up being appropriated by the very same oppressors it sought to challenge, institutionalised to the point of farce and used to defend the status quo of Saudi society which does nothing to fulfil any of the above. I resolved to not let this happen silently. The reclamation of the faith from the grasp of an exploitative and self-interested regime is an act of personal resistance, and one which I am committed to.
Although the state may continue to build and demolish towers at its own whim, I look beyond the columns of wealth. Like Muhammad, I found my answers in the mountains.