Mecca modernises ahead of Haj pilgrimage

Pilgrim’s progress: Some say that Mecca is turning into a religious Las Vegas © PA

A new state-of-the-art sound system is being installed at Islam’s holiest mosque, as part of a controversial new redevelopment. Is the pace of change undermining the true meaning of the Haj?

This October, an estimated four million Muslims will travel to Saudi Arabia, making the annual Haj pilgrimage to worship at sites in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It will be the largest gathering of humans anywhere in the world — and preparations are already under way.

To greet the worshippers, the Saudi authorities have announced the installation of 4,000 new loudspeakers and a state-of-the-art sound system at Mecca's Masjid al-Haram, the largest and oldest mosque in the world. Worshippers will be able to hear the mosque’s call to prayer up to six miles away, allowing them to take part without having to travel to the site during busy periods.

This new sound system is part of a much wider modernisation and building boom that has transformed the spiritual heart of the Islamic world over the last ten years. The plan is to increase capacity at the site to two million people, at a cost of £1.2 billion.

But the Saudi government has faced criticism from both home and abroad for modernising Mecca while neglecting and demolishing important historical and religious sites and shrines. Some Saudi archaeologists and historians say the city now resembles a religious version of Las Vegas.

The most controversial addition is the Abraj al-Bait, a sky-high clocktower and currently the world’s second tallest building. At 600m high, it looms over the the Kaaba‘s Black Stone — the centre of Mecca and the most sacred building inside the holy mosque.

The mosaic-encrusted tower houses extravagant five-star hotels and a vast shopping mall to entertain worshippers between prayers. Around the clock, building cranes crowd the skyline raising new skyscraper hotels as proximity to the Kaaba can mean big business. Hotel suites with the best views charge $7,000 (£4,096) per night.

Move with the times?

Many say Mecca’s transformation will allow far greater numbers of pilgrims to be accommodated safely on the Haj. In the past, overcrowding has resulted in fatal stampedes and infrastructure development has been desperately needed. For the many Muslims who make this once in a lifetime journey, these changes are a source of great pride.

But other pilgrims are dismayed by the commercialisation and extravagance on show, and accuse the Saudi government of greed and religious zealotry. They say the demolition of ancient buildings is driven by Wahhabism, the official religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, which holds that shrines and graves of holy people promote idolatry.The incredible pace of change distracts from the true meaning and purpose of Haj and threatens to damage Islamic heritage even further.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good idea for religious sites to be modernised or should more be done to preserve them?
  2. Is religion a dividing factor or a uniting one?

Activities

  1. In groups, make a list of the pros and cons of the changes taking place in Mecca.
  2. On a large piece of paper, draw a diagram marking the various stages of the Haj pilgrimage and the meaning of each ritual.

Some People Say...

“It is the end of Mecca.’Irfan al-Alawi (Islamic Heritage Research Foundation)”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not Muslim, does this affect me?
Islam is the second largest religion in the world with an estimated 1.6 billion followers, so there is a good chance you will know someone interested in undertaking the Haj. Learning about the world religions and how they are changing and adapting in the modern world promotes tolerance and understanding.
Why do people undertake the Haj?
The Koran — the holy book of Islam — says that a Muslim who is physically and financially able should make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It makes up one of five ‘pillars of Islam’, the basic religious duties, and allows Muslims across the world to come together and pray. It is a ritual that promotes the bonds of Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood, as it shows that everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah.

Word Watch

Haj
Pilgrims travel to Mecca from all over the world to carry out a set of rituals associated with the Prophets Muhammad and Ibrahim. These include circling anti-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba and throwing pebbles at representations of the devil.
Abroad
The Turkish government has expressed alarm at the voracious speed of change, because many Ottoman-era features have been demolished in the area. Ottoman Turks once ruled a vast empire ranging from the Arabian peninsula to the Balkans and north Africa.
Religious site
The house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was demolished to make way for public toilets, while a Hilton hotel has replaced the home of his companion, Abu Bakr.
Kaaba
According to tradition the Prophet Ibrahim was told by Allah to build a shrine dedicated to him. He constructed a small stone structure which was to be the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in Allah.
Centre of Mecca
Everyday, over one billion Muslims around the world pray facing the direction of the Kaaba.

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