Pilgrim's regress

Mecca
June 2, 1995

F E. Peters's Mecca is distressingly lengthy and has unclear aims. Almost half of the volume consists of tediously pious quotations from Arab historians and geographers. The linking text is disjointed and contains much speculation about the life of Muhammad, the single most influential citizen of the Muslim holy land. The scholarly apparatus is displayed in detailed notes and bibliography. Stylistically, the book is littered with scholarly understatements such as "there is little reason . . ." (when actually there is no reason at all).

The scope of the work is left undefined. Peters makes a provisional comparison between the unclear borders of Israel and the indecision of the Muslims about the boundaries of their holy land. Is it Mecca alone or also Medina? Or is it the whole of northwest Arabia? The analogy is palpably unreasonable. In their attempt to define their sacred precincts, the Muslims have neither expelled another people nor continually infringed the sovereignty of their neighbours.

But Peters succeeds in deflating the pompous piety of several Islamic rulers. They are shown fighting for power as bitterly as any infidel. We have portraits of men who sought worldly privilege while donning the title "Servant of the two sacred enclaves", i.e. the Meccan and Medinan shrine complexes. Arabic has a singular capacity for moral hyperbole; such grand titles abound. There have been caliphs who called themselves "Shadows of God" while extolling the virtues of political humility.

The caliphs were temporal rulers who sought the approval of the sharifs - the religious rulers of Mecca, direct descendants of the Prophet. Peters gives a history of the sharifates up to the reign of the last sharif, Husain ibn Ali, whose kingdom was conquered by the House of Saud in 1926. He describes how various caliphs extended the simple Meccan shrine. In Muhammad's day, a mosque was simply a place of worship, functional and fragile, reflecting the transient futility of this life. Successive rulers extended the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. Such grand architecture, however, was not always a monument to remind men of God's permanent greatness but intended to inspire totalitarian sentiments of submission, reinforcing the feudalism of caliphal rule.

The first quarter of the book contains a controversial discussion of the life of Muhammad, while the rest is largely an anthology of translated writings offering new information unavailable to non-Arabic speakers. Peters's account of the Prophet's life is partly an attempt to identify his allegedly radical political delinquencies, especially in his dealings with the Jews. The Jews not only rejected Muhammad's invitation to a comprehensive Islamic monotheism, they also conspired with the pagan Arabs to put an end to his political career. The Koran accused the Jews of being ungrateful rejectors and usurious merchants. Battles were fought. A whole Jewish tribe was exiled; another one was massacred. The details are horrendous.

In handling the above facts, Peters quotes accurately from classical Arab sources. But to see in them anti-semitism is an error. Theologically, the Koran classifies both Jews and Arabs as Semites. Politically, the infant Islamic state was so close to destruction that Muhammad had to move against the Jewish tribes. Pagan Arab collaborators were also killed or expelled. It was naive of Muhammad to expect the Jews to embrace Islam. But Peters's attempt to interpret the Prophet's military campaigns as "aggressive political violence" is effectively a modern anxiety.

Peters refers to "the quest of the historical Muhammad" but his implied comparison with Jesus is misleading. While both are real historical figures with enduring legacies, only Muhammad is known to us intimately. Indeed, if Islam remains tethered to an outdated scheme of things Arabian, the explanation lies in the posthumous authority of a Muhammad known to history with excessive clarity.

Nor is Peters consistent in his scepticism about events in the Prophet's life. Though in general cautious, he is inclined to pontificate about obscure events. For example, he discusses at length "the sinful wars" and speculates that an adolescent Muhammad may have participated in them and thereby learnt the use of arrows. There is no evidence for this because there was little motivation among Muhammed's contemporaries to record accurately his early adventures which were not seen as related to his later greatness. Why should tradition be dismissed as apocryphal while external speculation about peripheral matters is elevated to canonical truth?

The book ends with Mecca in 1926, long before oil was struck. Much has happened since the advent of Saudi Arabia's oil riches. The sacred city has seen a failed coup in 1979, a massacre in 1987 and many extensions to the Holy Mosque. The pilgrims' traditional environment has been gradually desecrated. Oil, once a blessing, is now condemned as a curse, because it invites foreign intervention. Peters owes us some mention of these vicissitudes in his pointlessly detailed but incomplete treatise.

Shabbir Akhtar teaches Islamic studies at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land

Author - F. E. Peters
ISBN - 0 691 03267 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 473

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