DURING THE HAJJ OF 2004, I PERFORMED WHAT we South Africans call the “walking Ziyara” of Mecca’s few remaining sacred sites. The aggressive sprawl of the modern Haram has obliterated many of the city’s holy places. Even the famous well of Zamzam has been paved over.
Admittedly, the Holy Sanctuary has had to be expanded to accommodate the millions descending upon it in the 21st century. But, at the same time, one can’t help but notice that extremist elements have used rampant development as an excuse to wipe out aspects of our heritage that they consider idolatrous.
The root of this bizarre cultural effacement is found in the literalism of the Salafi- Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia that eschews any metaphoric exegesis of Qur’an and Hadith. Inspired by an 18th-century scholar, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd alWahhab, the Salafi- Wahhabis have enjoyed considerable authority in the Kingdom since 1925.
For them, the visitation of graves, houses, wells or his-torical places of pious people is shirk, or polytheism. What this means in reality is that to protect our “weak iman,” these selfimposed guardians of our souls have taken it upon themselves to destroy all historical sites, just in case we might worship them.
They also have rabidly condemned the mawlid, the traditional celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, as bida’ (an undesirable innovation), or even shirk.’ But on that December day in 2004, the historical fitna was furthest from my mind. Walking with a group of pilgrims from my hotel in Shamiyya Street, we traversed the Qararra district and strolled up the road toward the cemetery of Ma’la where the graveyard of Sayyida Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet is located.
As it was late on our way back, we stopped to perform Maghrib, the post-sunset prayer, at Masjid al-Jinn, where the shadowy “fire-drakes” – as the explorer Sir Richard Burton called them – embraced Islam at the hand of the Prophet.
After prayer we passed Masjid al-Raya’, which marks where the Companions planted the flag of victory when they finally defeated the Quraysh. We crossed the road to Masjid al-Shajara, which is now hemmed in by a bridge and a highrise parking structure. The mosque is built on the site where a tree was summoned by the Prophet after a curious Bedouin had asked him for proof of Prophethood.
Our final stop on this devotional amble – our “grand finale” as it were – was the Prophet’s birthplace. Standing next to the two-storied library built on the site, which is now in sight of the expanding Haram, a young Saudi wearing a ghutra, the traditional red-checked scarf, was handing out pamphlets on “Islaam.” He spied our group.
“Ya Allah, why do you people visit this place? Don’t you know there’s doubt that the Prophet was born here? There’s nothing in Sunna or Qur’an that says this was Prophet’s birthplace,” he pronounced
“What on earth has this has got to do with Qur’an and Sunna?” I retorted, unfortunately rising to anger. “Are you contradicting historians such as Azraqi, Ibn Haythami and Imam Tabari?”
“There’s doubt,” he replied, “It’s up to you to prove things.”
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” I ventured.
“No, you must prove first,” he smirked.
“But I just have!” I said.
“But it’s not in Qur’an and Sunna,” he repeated …
Such are the arguments foisted upon the pilgrims, browbeaten into believing that by honoring the memory of Islam’s heroes, they are doing something wrong. This has been going on for a long time, and my first encounter of this kind was 17 years ago in Medina.
And, of course, the library-built over the Prophet’s birth site, which was demolished by King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud and then used as a cattle market2-has been a target of the Salafi-Wahhabis for decades. With the Haram scheduled for major expansion, the site of Prophet’s birthplace is under imminent threat of being permanently forgotten under concrete and marble.
Even the family of Sheikh ‘Abbas Kattan, who purchased the plot and constructed a library on it in 1951 to preserve it, will be unable to stop the jackhammers and bulldozers this time if the world does not wake up.
The library rests on the very foundations of the dwelling where Amina bint Wahb gave birth, and where more than 1,400 years ago, the Prophet entered the world miraculously circumcised and in the position of prostration.
This is where Amina’s midwife heard an Angel blessing the Prophet when he dropped into her hands and sneezed, and from where the sky become infused with so much light.
It is also from this spot that several other wonders took place the Monday night that the Prophet was born on the 12th of Rabi’ al-Awwal in the year of the Elephant, c. 570. The Persian palace of Khosrau shook and its balconies tumbled; the waters of Lake Tiberias in modern day Israel ebbed and the flame of Persia, which had not been put out for a thousand years, was mysteriously extinguished.
The famous English Hajji from Cape Town, Hedley Churchward,3 performed the pilgrimage in 1910 and sketched the Prophet’s birthplace before its destruction by the Salafi-Wahhabi ikhwan. His illustration indicates that a person had to go down a flight of stairs to enter a domed chamber under which the noble Prophet’s cradle had stood.
The Meccan historian, al-Azraqi, noted that it was desirable to perform a prayer in this house, and that the mother of the 8th-century ‘Abbasid Caliph, Harun alRashid, had it converted into a small mosque. The 7thcentury Qur’anic scholar, al-Naqqash, identified the birthplace of the Prophet as a place where prayers were accepted. The traveler Ibn Jubair also mentions the house in his writings, saying that it was opened to the public during the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal.
Tenth century scholars such as Imam Hajar al-Haythami, and historians such as Ibn Zahira al-Hanafi and al-Nahrawali, have all written accounts of the house being the focal point of the mawlid. Every year on the 12th of Rabi’ alAwwal, just after Maghrib, the notables of the city led by the four qadis, the judges representing the four schools of legal thought, would proceed to the Prophet’s birthplace.
A sermon eulogizing the miracles of the Prophet’s nativity would be delivered, as well as special invocations. After that the procession would wend its way to a crowded Haram through the streets of Mecca lit up by candles and lamps. In the Haram, where families would gather in their best clothes, more invocations would be made and the final evening prayer (Isha) performed.
This enduring tradition was stopped only in 1925 when the Salafi-Wahhabis marched into Mecca, beheading the city’s prominent Sunni ‘ulama on Jabal Qubais4 and vandalizing its graveyards and holy places, including the cemetery of Ma’la and the Prophet’s birthplace.
Parts of this article have been excerpted from chapter 25 of the author’s recent publication, “Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah,” Dome Publications, Cape Town, 2005.