History is Not a Luxury

As soon as the Hajj season was over, the Saudi government embarked on yet another construction project to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca. One of the goals of the latest project is the expansion of the mataf, which is the circumambulation area around the Kaaba. The announced plans indicated that to make way for the expansion, an old part of the mosque known as the Abbasid Colonnade will would have to be demolished. The Colonnade was first built by the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi more than 1,200 years ago. The Ottomans renovated it 1576, which is why it is also known as the Ottoman Colonnade.

The news of demolishing the Abbasid Colonnade prompted some Saudis to raise concern about this part of the Grand Mosque as well as other historical artifacts from early Islamic eras. Meccan journalist Omar al-Mudhwahi pleaded on Twitter to save the Colonnade where he spent countless hours as a young man. Essa Sawadi, an editor at al-Watan daily, reported today that the government decided to revise their expansion plans. But even if the Colonnade is preserved, the fact remains that many important sites and artifacts have already been lost.

Ashraf Fagih, a writer from Medina who is currently pursuing a PhD in Canada, says this is not just about about saving one location. Fagih, like many others in Hejaz, feels that his culture and identity are under attack. In a powerful post, he asks some important questions about the systematic destruction of history in the region. Below is a translation of a post he published Friday on his blog.

The Issue is Greater Than the Colonnade

By Ashraf Fagih

As usual, we jumped down each other’s throat on Twitter to discuss the issue of demolishing the Abbasid Colonnade at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Some people, like myself, made a fuss about the loss of the historical site. Other people believe that giving more space for pilgrims by expanding the mataf (the circumambulation area around the Kaaba) is more important than preserving history.

Anyway, it is too late to save the Colonnade, but regardless of how you think about it, I should tell you that the issue is greater than the architectural history of the mosque and the honor of serving pilgrims. The issue is about the history of the Umma, about generations being severed from their environment, and about a destructive scheme that we have been enduring in Hejaz for decades. If you think that I’m exaggerating, please hold your comments until you read this post in full.

Many jumped to remind us that expanding the Grand Mosque is a tradition started by Umar, and that there are no means to expansion except by demolishing, despite what some say that the current congestion in the mataf is a problem of crowd management that will not be solved by removing the Colonnade, that expanding mataf could actually aggravate the problem!

There is another group of people who view any call to preserve historical sites in Mecca and Medina as dervishism, polytheism, and adherence to the legacy of Sufism and its heresy. For those, I have nothing to say expect praying to God to cleanse their hearts.

Many in Hejaz are convinced that there is a conspiracy to obliterate the authentic identity of the region, its artifacts have been around until 30 or 40 years ago before bulldozers began to horrendously demolish them under many excuses such as: preserving the purity of faith, facilitating for pilgrims and constructing residential and developmental projects. All of the aforementioned excuses are a pretext that has no true value on the ground, they appear made up and fake considering the many available alternatives that have been ignored over the years in favor of the radical choice. To prove my point, let me list several tragedies that have come upon some Islamic historical sites in Medina which existed until recently then “vanished” from face of earth deliberately and without any rational justification:

  1. Saqifat Bani Saa’ida: It is considered the first elected “parliament” in islam. My mother told me that she used to pass by it on her way to school when she was young. I used to see them wistfully point to a public park — which disappeared now — as the location of the Saqifa. Why did the park disappear too? Why did they build a “park” to replace this site which is at the heart of Islamic history? Why isn’t there a grand conference hall or even a memorial? Was it removed to protect people from polytheism? Or was it also removed to give more space for pilgrims?!

  2. Jabal al-Rumah: the mountain where the Battle of Uhud took place. We keep reading news that they are attempting to remove it, or to remove part of it to give way for a new road. Most recently, we have read about attempts to prevent people from climbing it or getting near it.

  3. The Seven Mosques: It is said that these are locations where Prophet Mohammed — peace be upon him — has prayed during the Medina blockade in the Battle of the Confederates. Again, there are reports about plans to demolish them, allegedly because their locations could not be verified. This is a comical excuse because whether they could be verified or not, everything gets demolished all the same anyway.

  4. The Well of Uthman: near Sultana district in the middle of neglected gardens. I recall a rusted sign that used to mark the location years ago, but I don’t know what happened to it.

There are many, many other important locations in Mecca and Medina that have been recently obliterated, defaced, demolished or purposely neglected and won’t return by writing about them There is a more comprehensive post on Lubna’s blog about this.

One of the stingiest arguments used by the opponents of preserving historic sites left by the Prophet and his companions in Mecca and Medina is that our predecessors did not do it. That if the companions’ houses, for example, were worth preserving then Umar bin al-Khattab and Umar bin Abdulaziz would not have demolished them to expand the holy mosques. Therefor, we should ignore the sites built after that and not bother with the luxury of maintaining them. I think this argument is rejected for several reasons:

  1. Was Umar bin al-Khattb or Umar bin Abdulaziz infallible? Is what they have done an irrefutable case? In any case, may Umar rest in peace because if he has seen the wealth and prestige that many advocates of “the pure faith” are floundering today he would have reprimanded them until they understand the soul of his jurisprudence!

  2. If we agree on the actions of Umar and the caliphs who followed him regarding the expansion of the two holy mosques, what about the distant sites that have also been destroyed? Isn’t it astonishing that tens and hundreds of historical artifacts remain to be handed over from one generation to another until they reach us only to be annihilate? Were the Muslims in Mecca and Medina and across the Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluks, Fatimids, Ayyubid and Ottoma eras all have gone astray from true faith and that only we know better to remove a history that has lived for fourteen centuries? Were they all mistaken to preserve these artifacts and are the only ones who are right and farsighted?

  3. If we assume for the sake of argument that it was indeed the habit of our predecessors to remove historical artifacts, that does not necessarily mean that we should do the same. The companions have lived with the Prophet and saw him. We, however, need to hold on to every bit of their history with all these years separating us from them. This irrational fear of polytheism is an admission of the weakness of our religious education.

Now we come to the most important question: What is the importance of these historical artifacts in the first place? Isn’t the knowledge in our hearts more important? We are going to love the Prophet and his companions whether these artifacts existed or not, so what the fuss is all about?

I say: a group of people have been nagging us about what they call “Westernization” and the “identity crisis.” How our country, “Land of the Two Holy Mosques,” is being targeted in its culture and exceptionalism. This is true in general. I only add here that the main weapon of those Westernizers, the enemies of our Umma and its exceptionalism, is the destruction of historical sites and annihilating them!

The “Land of the Two Holy Mosques” is not all of Saudi Arabia. The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and the landmarks of the Prophet’s era is within the borders of Hejaz, in Mecca and Medina and the surrounding areas: Taif, Bader, Hunain, Hamra al-Assad, Khayber and others. A generation from this land have grown up without examining the physical landmarks that would connect them to the beautiful bygone era which we keep on reminiscing about its memories all the time. Moreover, these artifacts and locations are owned by the whole Islamic Umma. We have demolished them, so what do expect from them in return?

Thanks to the enemies of history, Mecca and Medina have become distorted copies of Dubai and Shanghai; masses of concrete and ugly skyscrapers inconsistent with the history and geography of the land. Please don’t come and tell me that those fancy buildings were built to serve the poor pilgrims!

History is not a luxury. History is important because it is the ID card of the nation. We have decided to bury our Islamic history under the ground and between the pages of books, despite our admission that we don’t read! How many museums are there for the Prophet’s history in Mecca and Medina? Maybe one only, despite the Grand Mufti’s opposition to the idea.

Who can convince us that this is not an ideologized conspiracy? Isn’t it laughable that we call for facilitating the rituals for pilgrims and visitors while at the same time we destroy and distort the identity of this land’s man when we falsely plant in his consciousness that before concrete there was nothing but dirt?

The issue is greater than the Abbasid Colonnade itself, but our fierce defense of it, even though it is merely harmless stones, is a reaction to everything that preceded this, a disparate attempt to salvage what can be salvaged, pushed by the accumulation of previous crimes committed against history, and by the apprehension of a threatened identity.

Finally, I leave you, the guardians of identity and faith with this tweet by the cute Paris Hilton so you can celebrate with her the opening of her store in holy Mecca: