Makkah, also spelled Mecca, is Islam’s most sacred city. The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and site of many important events in the life of Abraham, Makkah has been a center for religious ritual in the Arab Peninsula for millennia.
Geography of Makkah
Makkah lies in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia, near the Red Sea. The city is hemmed in by mountains, constraining its outward expansion. The rugged, inhospitable landscape surrounding Makkah belies the city’s longstanding importance to the religious and economic life of the region.
Water has long been a problem for residents of Makkah. Due to the area’s arid climate, the only reliable sources of water are springs and wells. On the other hand, the occasional rainfall often results in dangerous flooding. In the past several decades, dams have been built to control these floods.
History of Makkah
According to Islamic history, Makkah was founded around 2000 B.C.E. by Abraham and his son Ishmael. In the following centuries, the city fell under the rule of various ethnic groups, some monotheistic, but many pagan. Although the land surrounding Makkah was not arable, the city grew wealthy as a trading center, lying at the end of a caravan route that went to Syria.
Each year, supposedly dating back to the time of Abraham, tribes feuding over the scarce resources of the Arab Peninsula would declare a truce and go to Makkah for a pilgrimage. They would drink water from Makkah’s sacred Zamzam well, the site of the holiest shrine in the region. This yearly pilgrimage made Makkah a vital cultural center, allowing for exchange between diverse cultural groups. The area’s residents grew wealthy as they catered to the needs of pilgrims and traders.
The prophet Muhammad is said to have been born in Makkah in 570 C.E. In 610, Muhammad began receiving divine prophecies and preaching against the polytheistic pagan belief systems that had come to dominate Makkah since the time of Abraham. The Quraysh tribe, a pagan culture then in control of Makkah, attempted to quash Muhammad’s polytheistic proselytizing. Their persecution drove the prophet to leave for the city of Medina in 622.
Muhammad returned to Makkah in 628, and after several years of struggle and negotiation he and his followers took control of the city. All pagan idols were removed from Makkah, and Muhammad declared the city the holiest Islamic site.
Since Muhammad’s times, Makkah has fallen under the rule of various tribes, empires and nations. It has nonetheless remained a vital center for Islamic scholarship and pilgrimage throughout the centuries.
Makkah and the Five Pillars of Islam
The Five Pillars of Islam constitute a code of conduct for the Islamic faithful. While some sects observe more than five rules, these five remain constant throughout the Islamic world. They are: Shahadah, or recitation of a creed, Salah, or prayer to be carried out five times a day, Zakah, or alms giving, Sawm, or ritual fasting, and Hajj, or pilgrimage.
Makkah figures heavily in two of these pillars. During Salah prayers, Muslims worldwide face toward the Kaaba, a cubic structure inside the al-Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Makkah. In the beginning years of Islam, Mohammad and his followers prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. In 624, Mohammad received a divine revelation ordering him to change the Qibla, or direction of prayer, to face Makkah.
According to Islamic history, the current Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael on the foundations of a similar structure built by Adam, the first man. The Kaaba houses a black stone that supposedly has absorbed the sins of man. This is the holiest shrine in Islam, and for that reason all Salah prayers are directed toward it.
Makkah also plays a vital role as the site of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. According to the fifth pillar of Islam, all Muslims with sufficient economic means and health must make the pilgrimage to Makkah once in their lifetime.
The Hajj at Makkah
The Hajj occurs each year from the tenth to the fifteenth day of the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, huge crowds of the faithful gather in Makkah to perform rites in honor of Abraham and Mohammad. While performing their Hajj pilgrimage, men are required to wear ritual clothing made of two pieces of white cloth, while women may simply wear their usual modest attire.
On the first day of the Hajj, pilgrims enter the al-Masjid al-Haram Mosque, circling around the cubical Kaaba seven times and kissing the black stone it houses once upon each circuit. When the mosque is too crowded to allow each pilgrim to kiss the stone, those who cannot reach it simply stop and point to it on each circuit. Afterwards, pilgrims offer two prayers at the Place of Abraham inside the mosque (or elsewhere if crowds prevent them from reaching the specific spot).
Finally, the pilgrims walk or run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, reenacting Abraham’s desperate search for water to give his son Ishmael. This concludes with drinking water from the sacred Zamzam well, the water source finally revealed to Abraham’s family by Allah. This ritual has proven dangerous; in 2006, 362 pilgrims were trampled to death at this point in the Hajj.
Pilgrims spend the second day of the Hajj pilgrims stand vigil at Arafat, the site of Mohammad’s final sermon. This vigil is considered necessary for the completion of a legitimate Hajj.
The next day, pilgrims take part in Ramy al-Jamarat, or “stoning the devil.” Each pilgrim strikes a series of six pillars with seven stones. This is a ritual reenactment of Abraham’s six-fold refusal of the devil as he was preparing to sacrifice his son at God’s command. To reduce the risk of accidental stoning or trampling of pilgrims, the six pillars were replaced by a single wall in 2004.
After Ramy al-Jamarat, an animal sacrifice is held. Traditionally, pilgrims would slaughter an animal themselves, or oversee its slaughter. Today, most pilgrims buy a “sacrifice voucher,” which ensures that a professional butcher will slaughter an animal in their name. One sheep is slaughtered for each pilgrim, or one cow for seven pilgrims. The meat is distributed to the needy.
After two more visits to the al-Masjid al-Haram Mosque to circle the Kaaba, the pilgrimage is complete.
The Hajj pilgrimage has profound effects on the religious, social and economic life of Makkah. The yearly influx of pilgrims drives the area’s economy, as most Makkah residents make their living catering to the needs of those pilgrims. As convenient air travel brings more and more pilgrims to the city each year (an estimated 2 million in 2004), Makkah’s infrastructure grows to support the population required to meet those pilgrims’ needs. At the same time, the annual gathering of Muslims from around the world creates a culturally diverse atmosphere in the city.
Today, Makkah is a modern city boasting not only historical mosques but also skyscrapers and shopping malls. It is not, however, a tourist destination for non-Muslims, who are disallowed by Saudi law from entering the city. Within the Islamic world, however, it remains the most important center of cultural exchange and ritual practice.
“Five Pillars of Islam.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_pillars_of_Islam.
“Hajj.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hajj.
“Kaaba.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaaba.
“Mecca.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mecca.
“Qibla.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qibla.