For years now, people have been complaining about how the Saudi government is ruining Mecca with its obnoxious renovation: luxury hotels and runaway consumerism, that awful clock-tower looming over the Ka’ba and the destruction of numerous holy sites to build malls and public toilets. The latest news is that Paris Hilton’s chain has opened a store in Mecca, and Muslims worldwide are again disgusted at the apparent poisoning of our holy city.
There are plenty of reasons to despise the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. The ruling brand of extreme Sunnism, enforced by police squads of skinny teenagers in khaki uniforms, oppresses any Islamic traditions that fall outside its approval, including not only Shi’a but in fact many Sunni practices. The holy city isn’t a bastion of gender equality, and the ongoing development has only exacerbated the economic inequality: for poor pilgrims who have saved their entire lives to make hajj, it’s impossible to find accommodations anywhere near the Great Mosque. I’m all for the struggle to make Mecca a truly holy city of peace and justice; this struggle matches the struggle of hajj, our own efforts to perfect our character and do better in the world.
My problem is when people frame their opposition to the present Saudi version of Mecca as a call to restore a more just past, a return to an imaginary innocence that Mecca had supposedly lost in the 20th century. I’m sorry, but that innocence has never existed. Apart from the Ka’ba, Mecca is just another city. The people of Mecca – the pilgrims, the authorities, and the regular folks who just live there – have never been anything other than people. Whatever rottenness you can find elsewhere in the world exists in Mecca, and it’s not a Wahhabi invention. It has been there since long before Islam and throughout Islam’s history: unjust power, poverty, greed, racism, sexism, intolerance. Paris Hilton doesn’t bring anything new to the place.
I’m not saying this to dump on Islam. For me, the fully human shit of Mecca is the whole value of hajj. Before I went on hajj in 2008, the most valuable advice that I heard was to remember that no matter how awful people in Mecca might be, they were far worse to the Prophet himself. This is the city where people literally heaped camel intestines on Muhammad’s head, and I’m going to cry about the city’s lost innocence because now there’s a Burger King?
I tried to stay mindful when experiencing all of Mecca’s assholes: the religion police barking at me about my improper practice, other pilgrims who told me that I was going to Hell for my heretical innovations, folks who shoved and trampled me during ritual acts, Arab supremacists who thought that they owned Islam as a racial birthright, arrogant rich people, and just regular selfish assholes who were the same as selfish assholes that I’d find at any other tourist trap. But the biggest asshole in Mecca was me, and I learned this at every step of the way: my lack of patience, my irritability, my own prejudices and arrogance about what makes "good" religion, and my repeated failures to deal justly with the difficult people around me. My reactions to the assholes taught me things about myself.
One meaning for the Arabic root of hajj is “to overcome”; hajj serves as a struggle against the self, and I found plenty of opportunities during my hajj to see just how deep that struggle can get. I do believe that Mecca can be better, and that Muslims should strive to make it better; but it’s that unending struggle that makes hajj what it is.
I came to Mecca from an American city that is not perfect. Like Mecca, it’s thoroughly human and thus full of assholes. When Muslims in that city complain about Paris Hilton’s store opening in Mecca, I wonder about the content of their daily lives: the shows that they watch, the songs on their iPods, the stores where they shop, the restaurants where they eat, the activity on their Facebook walls. How pure are their local cultures that they can worry about the purity of a city that they see maybe once before they’re dead?
When pilgrims wish for Mecca to have an innocence that cannot exist in their real lives, they might be missing something. If you seek a magical time in which you find total peace and momentarily escape the ugly shit of this world, forget hajj, because what you want is a vacation. Seriously, go on a cruise. Or stay home and spend the money on weed; the experience that you’re really after is closer to just getting baked for three weeks.
Hajj as it actually happens, with millions of flawed human beings smashing into each other, is a confrontation with nasty reality; otherwise, you don’t overcome anything. Be thankful that the holy city is run by intolerant, greedy pricks, because they’ll hold up a perfect mirror to your own self and give you a worthy adversary.
They’ll show you who you are. We measure ourselves by what we do with the Mecca that they give us, the Mecca that we give ourselves. Welcome to Mecca, Paris.
You belong here.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @MM_Knight
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