Islam’s Idolatrous Heart

Is Mecca cashing in on its status as one of the world’s most important seasonal destinations -- by reinventing itself as a centre of religious tourism? How the capitalist west has taken over the heart of Islam.


Photo Credit: Jason HillISLAM'S CENTRE lies at its periphery. Unlike Rome or even Jerusalem’s long association with empire and civilization, Mecca has been neither a political nor indeed a cultural capital for the Muslim world. The Prophet himself ruled from Medina, where he also lies buried, and though Mecca was always the most important site of pilgrimage among his followers, it remained a small town with little institutional or architectural significance. If anything Mecca’s importance resides in its peripheral status, with traditional accounts of pilgrimage dwelling upon its remote and dangerous location in the midst of trackless deserts infested by marauding Bedouin. And while the great princes of Islam did send annual gifts to the town, they rarely deigned to visit it, instead making Mecca into a favourite place of exile for defeated rivals or disgraced scholars. In this sense the town was not so much a periphery as an anti-centre compared to Muslim capitals like Baghdad or Istanbul, Isfahan or Delhi. 

But Mecca has also served as Islam’s anti-centre in specifically religious ways, for during the pilgrimage women never veil their faces and mix freely with men, while many of the rites that both sexes perform are unique to the town. These practices, after all, were taken over wholesale from paganism, which lies at the ritual heart of all three monotheisms. Despite their attribution to Adam or Abraham, however, the pilgrimage and its sacred sites have never lost their association with paganism, and not simply because Muhammad was meant to have purified the Kaaba by cleansing it of idols. For Muslims down the ages have noted the idolatrous seduction that Mecca’s monuments possessed for believers. So the Wahhabis who have dominated the Arabian Peninsula for over a century now physically restrain pilgrims from venerating buildings and graves associated with the Prophet or his family, and have even gone so far as to destroy many of these important historical sites in order to prevent them from being taken as idols.

Another recognition of the idolatry at the heart of Islam is illustrated by a verse from the nineteenth century poet Ghalib of Delhi, who compared the cloth-draped Kaaba to a veiled woman, warning the pious Muslim not to lift her covering lest he discover the idol behind it. Poets and mystics have for centuries described the stern, masculine and iconoclastic God that the Koran inherited from the Old Testament both as an idol and a wine-drinking woman. So Ghalib’s elegant couplet was not particularly radical, representing instead a commonplace recognition of Islam’s synthetic character. Praised into the twentieth century by important Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal, who is acclaimed as the spiritual father of Pakistan, this synthetic character has fewer supporters today. Yet efforts to remove the idol from her sanctuary can only end up with another’s installation, and the recently concluded pilgrimage reveals that the capitalist West has today taken possession of Islam’s heart.

When in the nineteenth century the Wahhabis started demolishing shrines and other structures that had been objects of reverence, a thrill of horror passed through the Muslim world, providing an Ottoman army with the best of justifications in dealing with these heretics. But in more recent times complaints over Saudi efforts to refashion Mecca have had little traction, and this despite the fact that the alterations to Islam’s sacred city are more extensive than any in the past. Hills have been flattened, the houses of Islam’s founding figures destroyed, and there have even been attempts to interfere with the Kaaba’s structure, to say nothing of the rites of pilgrimage. Much of this change is justified by arguing that rebuilding is required to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims to Mecca, and this might well account for the wide avenues, air-conditioned tunnels and light railway constructed for easing the traffic of devotees.

But what about replacing sites associated with the Prophet with structures like the American fast-food chains lining the perimeter of the Great Mosque, or a giant seven-star hotel and the world’s biggest clock tower looming over the Kaaba? Is Mecca cashing in on its status as one of the world’s most important seasonal destinations by reinventing itself as a centre of religious tourism? I suspect that the Wahhabi anxiety about idolatry is more intimately, even religiously connected to the Saudi tolerance of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlets in the holy city, not least because their logo bears more than a passing resemblance to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s official acronym, KSA. For rather than turning Mecca into an old-fashioned commodity, one whose monuments become historical, aesthetic and indeed religious fetishes of the kind that are available in Rome, Jerusalem and elsewhere, the city’s refashioning is meant to accomplish just the opposite. Forbidding idolatry entails the disappearance of awe in the face of something stable and authentic. It is the difference between the pyramids of Giza and those in Las Vegas.

Whatever it is that pilgrims feel in Mecca, then, it increasingly appears to be a city built upon the erasure of authenticity even of a commoditized sort. And by ridding itself of such an imagined and idolatrous stability, Mecca offers the visitor an experience that is as abstract as capitalism itself. Of course the city had always been a great marketplace. What is new about this hypothetical experience is not its commercial aspect, but rather the lack of any object apart from the experience itself. And in this way the abstraction that has always been part of Islam joins hands with capitalism to produce the most modern and indeed Westernized of religions. Is it this achievement that allows Mecca’s transformation to go unremarked by the millions who in visiting it are schooled in the lessons of modernity? Visible forms of religiosity like the veils, caps and beards that make Islam into an “alternative” culture in the West tell us little about the latter’s apotheosis in Mecca. Instead think of the Saudi or Emirati woman, clothed in “traditional” garments on the outside yet dressed in the height of European fashion underneath.

In earlier times Muslims and others who had to contend with Europe’s colonial powers often took on a Western appearance outdoors or in public while reserving traditional modes of apparel and comportment for their private lives. For many Muslims today, however -- whether minorities in Europe or majorities elsewhere -- the situation is reversed. Clothing and other signs of “tradition” are on display only to the outside world, while the modern West is brought into the innermost recesses of their lives. It becomes difficult to determine what exactly is profound and what superficial in the making of pious Muslims today, because in however conservative and moralistic a way, their embrace of Western media, technology and fashion marks the Muslim devout as being far more modern than their Christian or Jewish counterparts. And in this sense their “alternative” lifestyle as visibly distinct persons might, at least in Europe and among the young, belong in the same generic category as that defining Punks, Goths or Skinheads. At some no doubt superficial level, after all, these movements are about a politics of style, of the dialogue between fashion and anti-fashion.

Abstraction, I have said, links the anti-idolatrous aspect of Islam that is manifested in Wahhabism with capitalism in its most transcendental form. This is not an entirely novel argument. The German philosopher Hegel, for instance, claimed in the nineteenth century that it was Islam’s abstraction and rejection not simply of images but of all things solid and stable, that made it into the most modern of religions. Abstraction, he maintained, led to fanaticism defined as the attachment to a pure idea, something that he thought was revealed in the French Revolution as in some sense a “Muslim” event. Whatever the merits of this argument, it tells us that there exists a long and respectable tradition that would link Islam to what is most modern about Europe, in both its positive and negative aspects. What interests me, however, is how the attempt to banish one idol inevitably ends up installing another in its place. But if it is capitalism as a whole rather than the sum of its parts (in the shape of commodities, the market, etc.) that is worshipped in Mecca, in what does its idolatry consist?

Deployed though they are on flags, architecture and the like, abstract symbols of Islam like the crescent and star, the calligraphic name of God or verses from the Koran rarely become objects of veneration in their own right. And in the absence of other permissible figures, Muslim iconography in modern times relies heavily upon buildings, the Koran itself as a book, and any other object on which the name or words of God have been inscribed. Among these objects I find the clock most interesting, since even without being etched by some divine pen it has become one of the most popular of Muslim icons. As a sign of modern technology, of course, clocks and clockwork were popular in eighteenth century Europe as well as Asia and Africa, with the Deists’ God himself being called the great clockmaker. The profusion of clocks that continue to be embedded in the gateways of mosques and shrines, installed in towers and otherwise hung on the walls of religious and secular edifices, however, suggests another kind of obsession in the Muslim world.

Given the call to prayer, clocks seem to be redundant, even if they might indicate such themes as the transitory nature of the world or the end of time. The monstrous clock tower recently built in Mecca, however, is surely the perfect idol for modern Muslims, its moving parts and relationship with number representing the marriage of entity and abstraction. This giant clock set atop a luxury hotel from which the Kaaba becomes an expensive view, dominates the city not only as its great alternative attraction, but also as a kind of metronome for all that occurs there. Indeed the ceaseless revolution of its hands might even be said to mirror Mecca’s most important ritual, the circumambulation of the Kaaba viewed as the central point of a living clock. Yet as a visible symbol of the mechanized labour and endless consumption that Saudi Arabia’s resource economy makes possible for its own people and others around the world, Mecca’s new clock tower also represents a capitalist stake driven into the heart of a religion whose collective sensibility surpasses communism in its intensity.