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17. Understanding Islam

1.5. Mecca

Around 570 AD – there is no agreement on the exact date – Mohammed was born in Mecca, a small but flourishing town of around 85 km^2 about 50 km to the east of the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Although we have no independent accounts dating from the actual time, according to later Islamic sources, Mecca was one of the most important hubs of trade between the south and the north of Arabia, controlling the trade route between the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula all the way up to Jerusalem and Persia. According to Muslim historians, Arab despots used to charge the Persian traders tolls to ensure the safety of their trading caravans. It was at the time ruled by the Quraysh tribe; Mohammed was born into one of the clans which made up the Quraysh, the Hashimites.

Mecca was also a place of great religious significance to animists throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and served as a place of pilgrimage for the worship of many of the deities revered by the peoples of Arabia with different cults journeying there at different times of year. Arabs used to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca once a year to be purified from their previous year’s misdeeds (a practice which was adopted by Islam, although Islam claims it inherited this practice from the time of Abraham). The focus of such pilgrimages was the Kaaba. As mentioned above, kaabas were cube-shaped structures which housed black stones and which served as a kind of shrine for worship. Though there were many kaabas throughout Arabia, none was as important as the one in Mecca which had been in existence for quite some time before the birth of Mohammed. The Meccan Kaaba was considered particularly sacred; you couldn’t climb on it unless absolutely necessary, and then only free men were allowed to, so if it was necessary for a slave to climb it, they would have to be freed first. Although its exact origins are unclear, it is likely that it was first used for idol worship when a wealthy Arab brought back such an idol from what is now southern Jordan, where he had seen pagans worshipping stone idols, which they asked for rain, victory and so on. They gave him an idol called Hubal – a statue human in shape made of red agate with one arm broken off. The story goes that he placed it in front of the Kaaba for his tribe to worship. Over time, other tribes added their own idols and by the time of Mohammed there were over 300 different idols.

Oddly, it was not only pagans and idol worshippers who made pilgrimage to Mecca in pre-Islamic Arabia, but also Jews and Christians. In fact, we see the esteem in which Mecca was held by Christians in a poem written by Ali Ibn Hatem, at the time a Christian leader of the Arab tribe Tayy and later one of the companions of Mohammed. In this poem, he reproached a Nestorian Christian leader saying:

“The enemies conspired sparing you no Evil
I swear by the lord of Mecca and the Cross.”

This might seem rather strange: a Christian poet writing to a Christian leader swearing by Mecca. It is even stranger when we find out that upon his later victorious entrance to Mecca, Mohammed commanded all pictures and statues inside and around the Kaaba in Mecca to be removed, but he put his hand on one picture and commanded that everything else other than what was under his palm be removed; when he lifted his hand, there were a picture of Jesus and Mary. So clearly Mecca had also been a centre of worship for Christians.

It is true that Mecca had a large population of Christian heretics, mostly Nestorians who had either escaped from Roman persecution throughout the empire (which at that time stretched from the British Isles through North Africa to the borders of Persia) or been excommunicated by the Latin Catholic or Greek Orthodox Churches. As Mecca was outside the authority of Rome, Constantinople or Persia, it was a safe haven for those who ran from any one of these. This group of Christians formed their own community called “Ahabish” named after a mountain in Mecca where they used to congregate at its feet. There were also some Christian slaves.

In short, at the time of Mohammed’s birth, the peninsula in general and Mecca specifically had a strange amalgamation of pagans, Christians, Christian heretics, and Jews. Each of these groups held Mecca and the Kaaba in high regard for different reasons. For example the Jews would pay respect to it publicly to appease the Arabs and to keep their trade secure. This strange combination of cultures combined to provide an environment ready to accept a monotheist claiming to be a prophet. The Jews were waiting for the Messiah, the Christians were waiting for the second coming of Christ; this expectation spread to and was adopted by other religious communities, and for such a prophet to come out of Mecca, the religious centre of the day, would have seemed entirely logical. And into this environment Mohammed was born.

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