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Escape from Mecca

LOS ANGELES – The recent stampede in Mecca, in which more than a thousand pilgrims making the hajj were trampled to death, is a tragic but powerful reminder of the city’s prominence in the Muslim world. According to theological tradition, every Muslim is required to make a trip to the city once in their lifetime, if they are able to do so.

In practice, however, it is only in recent times that making a pilgrimage to Mecca has come to play such an important role in Islam. The city has always had symbolic significance, but its importance to millions of Muslims worldwide is largely a modern phenomenon, one that has grown in recent decades as Saudi officials and fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics promoted religious tourism as a means of spreading their influence.

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For most of Islamic history, the overwhelmingly majority of Muslims did not travel to Mecca. Instead, they made local pilgrimages to the major shrines that still garland the Muslim world. Some are to Koranic prophets even older than Muhammad; others are to Shia imams or Sufi saints; and still others are to hallowed Muslim women. The name of one holy place, the necropolis of Makli in Pakistan, hints at its medieval ambition to become an alternative destination for pilgrims: Makli means the “little Mecca.”

The modern hajj has its origins in the rise of religious tourism to Mecca in the nineteenth century, when steamships began transporting large numbers of pilgrims to the Arabian Peninsula. Then, as now, there was little local effort to limit the number of pilgrims to safe levels or to provide adequate infrastructure and security to handle the masses of visitors. Annual influxes of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims closely packed into steamships were blamed for spreading cholera through port cities from Bombay to Hamburg, making the hajj a major cause of death around the world.

For the most part, the pilgrimage’s religious nature has muted criticism of the way it was handled. But contemporary accounts make clear that not all were pleased with Mecca’s management of the event. In the 1860s, the female Indian Muslim ruler of Bhopal, Sikandar Begum, wrote a warts-and-all account of Mecca as a “wild and melancholy-looking” city whose “dirty and ill-drained” streets were filled with disease and disorder. A half-century later, the Central Asian pilgrim ‘Abd al-Rashid Ibrahim described the holy city’s filth and squalor, recounting stories of pilgrims walking through streets ankle deep in excrement.

Religious tourism played a central role in the region’s nineteenth-century economy (until the arrival of Texas oilmen in the 1930s, Mecca was almost entirely dependent on visiting pilgrims). But the numbers of visitors began to rise sharply after the city fell under the control of the Saudi royal family in 1924.

Until then, the only way to reach Mecca was by pack animal. The Ottoman Empire raised funds from pious Muslims (and brought in German technicians) to lay a railway from Damascus to Medina. But the last leg of the journey – to Mecca itself – remained a monopoly of the camel-owning Bedouin. When the Saudi government introduced Fords to the area in around 1930, it needed all of its military resources to prevent the Bedouin from destroying them.

To be sure, the Saudi government faces massive demand from Muslims to be allowed to make the hajj, and it has introduced a quota system to limit their numbers. Even so, it maintains strenuous efforts to attract pilgrims – particularly wealthy ones – by building attractions, including vast shopping malls and a colossal copy of London’s Big Ben that now looms incongruously over the Ka‘ba. And the authorities’ admission of more pilgrims than the city’s infrastructure can safely handle is indisputable; the proof is repeated disasters like the one in September.

Indeed, since taking control of Mecca, the Saudi government has used the city and the hajj as centerpieces in its efforts to place the kingdom at the center of the Muslim world and spread Wahhabi Islam. As soon as the Saudi royal family seized the city, the new rulers destroyed the Shia and Sufi shrines that might have undermined their sought-after monopoly over the ritual aspects of the pilgrimage.

And their approach seems to have worked. It is not uncommon for pilgrims from, say, India or Indonesia to adopt strict, conservative tenets after their return from Mecca. As influence is ultimately a matter of numbers, it should come as no surprise that the Saudis seek to maximize the inflows of Muslim pilgrims each year.

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Even when faced with calamitous death tolls, the Saudi establishment is unlikely to change its approach. It is up to the rest of the Muslim world to provide alternatives to the modern idea, championed by Saudi Wahhabis and other arch-conservatives, that Mecca is the inexorable and inevitable center of the Muslim world. There is nothing stopping Muslim governments from taking a page out of the Saudi handbook and promoting the neglected shrines in their own territories.

Doing so would not only reduce the number of pilgrims traveling to Mecca, making the visits safer; it would also force Saudi Arabia to share the enormous profits of religious tourism. Even more important, moving beyond the modern hajj to a more plural pattern of pilgrimage could help stem the Wahhabi takeover of the faith.