As part of their latest expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram (the Holy Mosque), the Saudis are criticized for speedy and insensitive destruction of Muslim historical sites and architectural heritage, without taking into consideration the feelings and views of professionals, experts and even ordinary people.
Their decisions and actions are seen as somewhat impetuous, arbitrary and one-sided, rather than additionally measured, punctilious and collaborative.
Most of the prevailing criticism comes from outside the country and varies from placid and constructive, to callous and derogative.
Some of the harshest comments made were those to the effect that Makkah was robbed of its history; that the city was turned into a Makkah-Hattan or a Disneyland; that the city has become anti-historical giving preference to an ultra-modern, materialistic and consumerism predilection and culture instead; that it was increasingly catering to the needs of the superrich at the expense of the average Muslims; and that as a result of the brisk development of the hospitality industry, services and facilities abutting the Mosque, the Ka’bah takes no longer central stage in the urban pattern and composition of the city.
Ziauddin Sardar went so far as to declare that:
“The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Ka’bah, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is.
It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich.
The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas… The few remaining buildings and sites of religious and cultural significance were erased more recently.
The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, completed in 2012, was built on the graves of an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, including the city’s few remaining millennium-old buildings. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night, displacing families that had lived there for centuries.
The complex stands on top of Ajyad Fortress, built around 1780 CE, to protect Makkah from bandits and invaders. The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), has been turned into a block of toilets.
The Makkah Hilton is built over the house of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the Prophet and the first caliph… Makkah is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens to and in the city has a profound effect on Muslims everywhere.
The spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount. It is hardly surprising then that literalism, and the murderous interpretations of Islam associated with it, have become so dominant in Muslim lands.” (www.nytimes.com)
It is difficult to say whether the mentioned and other similar judgments and accusations were sincere, productive and feasible, or signified no more than some old clichés, sentimental flare-ups, or even certain politically inspired sound bites.
Nonetheless, it is an endless debate whether and how much traditional neighborhoods with their traditional landmarks should give way to the colossal Mosque developments and expansions; or if they cannot be left alone, preserved and maintained, how far they should be assimilated into new modern architectural development schemes and designs, which will function as amalgams of the past and present, of tradition and modernity, and of intrinsic sentimental values and pressing present-day pragmatism and future visions.
Be that as it may, modernity, in the sense of being modern, contemporary and up-to-date, must move on and take its natural course, absorbing tradition and determining in a world of dialectics the latter’s direction and fate. Hence, modernity and tradition are most enduring and at the same time inseparable terrestrial truths. Undeniably, the vitality and dynamism of human existence are sustained only by constant interplays between them.
According to that paradigm, too, al-Masjid al-Haram had to develop and expand as a response to the development and expansion of the Muslim community worldwide, which the Holy Mosque was meant to symbolize and serve.
The Mosque’s development and expansions also meant that the Mosque’s own traditional nuances and dimensions, and the traditional nuances and dimensions of its adjacent sites, needed to be revisited from time to time and be significantly impinged upon.
Such, furthermore, was a part of sunnatullah (the rules and laws of the Creator according to which His creation unfolds and exists). Thus, the question was never if, but when and how, the growths and expansions of al-Masjid al-Haram will materialize.
No wise or insightful person will in principle ever criticize the notion of the needed and justifiable Mosque development and expansion, for such an act would be tantamount to voicing an objection to some of the most fundamental laws and principles that govern human existence.
Those who are fond of criticizing the expansions, do so only because of their disagreements concerning the ways and systems in accordance with which the inevitable was happening.
However, one thing is certain: all parties agree on the verity that the best Mosque on earth deserves the best form and function in order to serve the best religion, Islam, and its best followers, Muslims, even though some people’s motives became eventually colored with emotions, personal preferences, elements of socio-cultural relativism, and even with some political agendas.
Genuine criticism and feelings of unhappiness revolve around the truth that Makkah as a sanctuary and a holy land with the holiest Mosque within its precincts needs to be a standard setter in a myriad of life aspects, including Islamic urbanism and Islamic built environment, taking into account how big and serious a role Islamic spirituality plays in determining and shaping their respective recognizable characters.
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