en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 50, Number 1January/February 1999

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Servants of God’s House

Written by Greg Noakes
Photographed by Peter Sanders

Its strategic position and vast hydrocarbon resources make Saudi Arabia an important player on the world's political and economic stages. But among the world's billion Muslims, the kingdom holds a deeper significance, for it is the home of Islam's two holiest cities: Makkah and Madinah, both located in the western region of the country, the Hijaz. But being the birthplace of Islam is not just a matter of prestige. It is a status that brings with it the responsibility for maintaining the cities' ability to accommodate pilgrims and, in particular, Makkah's Sacred Mosque and Madinah's Prophet's Mosque. As the number of pilgrims each year has now risen to more than two million, the task of providing simple hospitality for such numbers, as well as enhancing their comfort and safety, is an enormous one.

Since 'Abd al-'Aziz took control of the Hijaz in the mid-1920's, the kingdom has regarded stewardship of the two holy mosques as among its highest priorities. This is reflected in the official title adopted by today's King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, who dropped the traditional "His Majesty" for Khadim al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn ("Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques").

The kingdom's commitment goes far beyond rhetoric. In the decade between 1986 and 1996, Saudi Arabia spent more than 70 billion riyals ($18.66 billion) on the development of the two holy mosques and their environs. "When the kingdom allocates part of its national income for expenditure on the two holy mosques," King Fahd said, "it feels that it is investing its money in the service of Islam and Muslims."

From the time of King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud through the reigns of Kings Sa'ud, Faisal, Khalid and now King Fahd, the holy places have undergone massive restoration and expansion projects that have transformed them more extensively than at any time in the preceding 13 centuries.

Makkah al-Mukarramah—"Makkah the Honored"—was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570, and it was here the Qur'an was first revealed to him 40 years later. Since then it has been the place toward which Muslims turn to pray five times every day. Makkah's Sacred Mosque surrounds the Ka'ba, a cubical structure some 15 meters (48') tall, draped in a gold-embroidered black silk cover that is sewn anew each year. Its interior is empty, and its door is opened only twice a year for ritual interior cleaning. According to the Qur'an, the first Ka'ba was built by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Isma'il (Ishmael) as a place for the worship of the one God. This history makes it a physical reminder of the links between Islam and the dawn of monotheism; among the Qur'an and previous revelations, and between the Prophet Muhammad himself and the earlier prophets of God.

The mosque about the Ka'ba now encompasses the small hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa, between which Ibrahim's wife Hajar (Hagar) ran in her frantic search for water for her ailing infant Isma'il. In a miraculous confirmation that Hajar's trust in the one God was not misplaced, an angel appeared and brought forth what is today known as the Well of Zamzam, which is also located within the Sacred Mosque.

In addition to the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage, Makkah is also host throughout the year to hundreds of thousands of Muslims performing 'umra, or the lesser pilgrimage, which involves several of the same rituals as the Hajj, as well as another million or more worshipers who arrive to perform supplemental tarawih prayers every night during the month of Ramadan. Because of Makkah's centrality in Islamic ritual and history, it is likewise the center of the Muslim world.

Development of the area surrounding the Ka'ba and the Well of Zamzam dates from within a decade of the Prophet's death. The tremendous early growth in the number of Muslims, and thus in the number of pilgrims, led the second caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, and his successor, 'Uthman ibn 'Affan, to clear away a number of houses around the Ka'ba and to erect the first wall to enclose the site. During the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the mosque was enlarged further and roofs, columns and minarets were added. The mataaf, the open area in which pilgrims circumambulate the Ka'ba, was later paved with marble, and the masaa, the path between al-Safa and al-Marwa where pilgrims re-enact Hajar's panicked search, was incorporated into the mosque.

By the 10th century, the Sacred Mosque covered an area of some 27,000 square meters (6 2/3 acres). Throughout the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods until the early years of our century, work on the mosque was limited to renovation and restoration of this existing structure.

Upon gaining control of Makkah and the surrounding region in 1925, King 'Abd al-'Aziz set about making the Hajj safer for pilgrims. This was both a matter ef. religious duty and of pragwratism, because previously the pilgrims—who paid taxes for their visits—had had to brave poor sanitary conditions, inadequate accommodations and even highwaymen to fulfill their religious obligations. By the mid-1930's, British Muslim Harry St. John ('Abd Allah) Philby observed that the pilgrims were "safe, comfortable, contented, well-provided with water and medical attention, free from exacting attentions and attentive exactions, while a Government that sincerely believes that no man dies except of God's will has done more, far more than any of its predecessors to reduce the death rate of the pilgrimage."

Yet the very success of King 'Abd al-'Aziz's efforts meant that by the time World War II was over, the existing mosque was soon unable to accommodate the rising numbers of pilgrims. Congestion was compounded by the fact that the Hajj rites must each be performed in certain locations within a certain period of time by all of the pilgrims. For example, it is not possible to reduce crowding by letting half the pilgrims go to the Plain of Arafat one day while the other half waits in Makkah, and then the next day have them switch places.

In 1955, King Sa'ud, son and successor of King 'Abd al-'Aziz, ordered the first expansion of the Sacred Mosque in more than a thousand years. The mosque's area was increased five-fold, to 152,000 square meters (37 ½ acres), which gave it a capacity of half a million worshipers. Seven 89-meter (285') minarets replaced shorter minarets, and the masaa was developed to better accommodate and regulate the flow of pilgrims between al-Safa and al-Marwa. Provisions for draining floodwaters—which have always plagued the low-lying areas of Makkah—were also implemented. This expansion gave the mosque its current unique architectural character, a synthesis of Islamic styles, as well as its configuration: It is the only mosque in the world in which the direction of prayer is inward, for this mosque is the physical center point of Islam, and all others are like points on the circumference of a wheel, each oriented toward this one.

Subsequent projects in 1959 and 1981 brought further improvements to the mosque's structure and ornamentation, a network of basements and service tunnels, a vast cooling and ventilation system and further improvements to drainage.

Until the middle of this century, most foreign pilgrims arrived in Makkah overland or by sea, after journeys that lasted weeks or even months. But the advent of widespread air travel has made the holy places more accessible than ever. This, combined with rapid demographic growth in much of the Muslim world, has led to an exponential growth in the numbers coming for Hajj. In King 'Abd al-'Aziz's time, 100,000 pilgrims might perform Hajj in a given year, but fewer than 60 years later, the number had surpassed 20 times that.

In 1988, King Fahd laid the cornerstone for the largest expansion project in the history of the Sacred Mosque. Now complete, the project's most visible feature is the extension of the mosque's western gallery into an area that had previously been an open esplanade. The extension is marked by a monumental entranceway framed by two new minarets, giving the Sacred Mosque a total of nine. A line of three new domes is set parallel to this entrance, while the extension also incorporates 18 smaller entranceways and some 500 new marble columns within the mosque itself. The Sacred Mosque now encompasses fully 356,000 square meters (88 acres), including the rooftop prayer areas and the open plazas surrounding the mosque. Although it comfortably holds a million worshipers, during Hajj and Ramadan more than twice as many pack into it and fill its adjoining plazas.

This latest expansion project not only allowed for more worshipers but also made them more comfortable. Specially developed heat-resistant marble tiles now cover the floor—an important consideration when daytime temperatures in the summer consistently top 40° (104°F). The complex also now boasts one of the world's largest air-conditioning plants. A new sound system and an internal radio network enable worshipers in all parts of the mosque to participate in the congregational prayers. Zamzam water is cooled and sterilized for drinking with ultraviolet light. Escalators whisk 15,000 people an hour to the rooftop prayer areas, while tunnels for pedestrians and vehicles ease the omnipresent Hajj gridlock in the streets around the mosque.

In the city itself, medical services, sanitary facilities and housing have been improved, and other sites of Hajj rites, including Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat, have been upgraded. With 90 percent of foreign pilgrims arriving by air, a dedicated Hajj terminal at Jiddah's King 'Abd al-'Aziz International Airport handles immigration and customs processing for pilgrims. (See Aramco World, July/August 1981.) The terminal's innovative open design and distinctive roof line, composed of a series of tent-like canopies, have won international architectural recognition and can handle the stream of airliners—one every two minutes—that arrives in the days preceding the Hajj.

A meat-packing facility, completed in 1982, ensures there is no waste of the approximately 500,000 sheep and 20,000 camels sacrificed each year as part of the Hajj. Previously, many carcasses had to be discarded. Now, the meat is canned and distributed as part of the kingdom's international emergency relief programs. Makkah's new King Fahd Cooled Water Charity Factory produces some 40 million one-liter plastic bags of drinking water given to pilgrims during Hajj.

Despite these improvements, the pilgrimage remains the largest regular human migration on earth, and accidents—even tragedies—do occur. There have been fatal airliner crashes, stampedes and, in 1997, a devastating fire in the tent city at Mina—which led to the introduction of fire proof tents and a ban on open cook-stoves in favor of centralized kitchens. Saudi government ministries, as well as institutions such as the Hajj Research Center at Umm al-Qura University in Makkah, continue to investigate ways to improve Hajj facilities and further ensure pilgrims' safety and comfort. Beginning in 1999, the government hopes to reduce crowding by implementing a regulation under which Saudi nationals—some of whom devoutly perform Hajj each year—may attend only once every five years. (Non-Saudi pilgrims are limited by visa quotas agreed upon by Saudi Arabia and the pilgrim's country of origin.) Over the next decade, there are plans to further expand and upgrade the facilities at Mina, Muzdalifah and the Plain of Arafat.

Less well known outside the Islamic world than Makkah, "The City of the Prophet," or al-Madinah al-Munawwarah ("Madinah the Radiant"), some 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Makkah, is Islam's second most important site, and it is here that the historic Muslim community first came of age. Originally called Yathrib, it is here that the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of believers were welcomed when they fled mounting persecution in their native Makkah in 622. This flight, known as the hijrah, marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

In Madinah, the long process of institution-building within the Muslim community had its roots, and this is reflected in the shift in both the character of the Prophet's mission and the revelations he received there. As Marmaduke (Muhammad) Pickthall noted in the introduction to his pioneering English translation of the Qur'an,

The Hijrah makes a clear division in the story of the Prophet's Mission, which is evident in the Koran. Till then he had been a preacher only. Thenceforth he was the ruler of a State.... The kind of guidance which he and his people needed after the Hijrah was not the same as that which they had before needed. The Madinah surahs [chapters of the Qur'an] differ, therefore, from the Meccan surahs. The latter give guidance to the individual soul and to the Prophet as a warner; the former give guidance to a growing social and political community and to the Prophet as example, lawgiver and reformer.

The verses of the Qur'an revealed during the decade Muhammad spent in Madinah, and the accounts of his actions and decisions during that time, remain the principal reference points for Muslims in their social, economic and political affairs. Even after Muhammad's conquest of Makkah in 630, and following his death in 632, Madinah remained for several decades the capital of the rapidly expanding Muslim state. The hadith, or traditions of the Prophet, record the affection he felt for Madinah. Abu Hurayrah, one of the Prophet's companions, relates that Muhammad asked God to bless the city:

O Lord! Ibrahim who was Your Servant and Friend and Prophet prayed for Makkah, and I pray to you for Madinah. I am your Servant and Prophet, and as Ibrahim prayed for Makkah, so do I pray with him and pray for Madinah.

Upon the Prophet's arrival in Madinah, his first act was to select a place to build a mosque and his house. To avoid any hint of favoritism toward any of the tribes in Madinah, Muhammad left the choice of the site to his mount. Charles (Hassan) LeGai Eaton tells the story in his Islam and the Destiny of Man:

One after another the people grasped the halter of his camel, Qaswa. "Let her go her way," [Muhammad] said, "for she is under the command of Allah." After wandering for some distance, seeming ready to settle (amidst growing excitement), then ambling forward again, taking her time and fulfilling her destiny, Qaswa at last halted and sank to the ground, with all the groaning and grumbling of which a noble and self-important camel is capable. Here was built, in due course, the first mosque of Islam, together with the Prophet's house and the apartments of his wives.

When the Prophet died a decade later, he was buried within the building, and his successors, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and 'Umar, were later entombed beside him.

That first mosque was made of palm logs and bricks, and it was large for its time: some 1,050 square meters (11,300 sq ft). Today, the Prophet's Mosque is the product of an expansion project every bit as vigorous as that in Makkah, and it can hold up to a million worshipers.

Like Makkah's Sacred Mosque, the Prophet's Mosque also has a long history of expansion and renovation. The caliphs 'Umar and 'Uthman both extended the mosque, and the Umayyad ruler Al-Walid built minarets, a mihrab (a prayer niche for the imam) and additional prayer halls. Further improvements were made under the Abbasids. The mosque's distinctive green dome, which rises above the Prophet's tomb proper, was built in the 15th century while Madinah was under the control of the Cairo-based Mamluks. In 1849, the Ottoman sultan 'Abd al-Majid carried out the last expansion effort prior to the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Two years before his death, King 'Abd al-'Aziz initiated a building program to increase the mosque area by some 60 percent. Later, King Faisal built some 35,000 square meters (nearly nine acres) of open plazas around the mosque, and this area was later doubled by his successor, King Khalid.

In 1985, King Fahd launched the most extensive expansion in the mosque's history, which enlarged the mosque itself by a factor of 10. As the King himself noted, the present mosque is "equal [to] the area of the city of Madinah in ancient times." Six new 105-meter (336') minarets brought the mosque's total to 10; seven new entrances were added and a series of 27 domes, each 15 meters (48') in diameter and capable of being electronically slid open or closed, were incorporated into the new roof. A dozen awnings, which resemble giant umbrellas, open automatically to shade the building's courtyards and shield worshipers from sun. The mosque is air-conditioned by a massive system that produces 54,500 liters (14,400 gal) of cold water every minute. Additional escalators, new lighting and an internal radio network were also included in the project. The extension was even designed to allow for the future addition of yet another level. Service and transport tunnels, as well as extensive drainage facilities and parking garages, have been built underground.

Although this work on the two holy mosques is without historical precedent, it is being carried out in the context of a wider amplification of the centrality of Makkah and Madinah in the global Muslim community. In the past, these were cities that seemed impossibly distant, almost mythical to many, especially those who were poor and lived in remote lands. Now, not only can the Sacred Mosque accommodate two million worshipers, allowing many more Muslims to perform the Hajj and thus fulfill one of the obligations of Islam, but as a result of the kingdom's global outreach efforts, millions of Muslims from Dhaka to Dallas now watch the Hajj on television. While this hardly substitutes for making the pilgrimage oneself, the immediacy of such broadcasts serves to bind Muslims more tightly through a ritual that is now shared more broadly than ever.

The situation is similar as the month of Ramadan draws to a close, when Muslims mark the anniversary of the first revelation of the Qur'an. On this lailat al-qadir, or "night of power," some three million people perform tarawih prayers in the Sacred Mosque—a greater crowd than during the Hajj—and millions more watch the same ritual on television or listen to it via radio, each experiencing a depth of emotion in which tears are common as the imam, or prayer leader, of the Sacred Mosque recites the Word of God on this holy night. Throughout the year, videotapes, audio cassettes and compact discs of these prayers can be found for sale in mosques and stores throughout the Muslim world, and the weekly Friday congregational prayers from both holy mosques are broadcast via satellite around the globe as well. All of these Makkah- and Madinah-based media offer believers yet more unprecendented links to the birthplace of their faith.

In a more traditional medium, Madinah's King Fahd Holy Qur'an Printing Complex publishes some 10 million copies of the Qur'an annually, both in Arabic and in translation, which are distributed free both in the city and throughout the world. Each of the 117 million copies that the house has produced has been stamped "al-Madinah al-Munawwarah" on the frontispiece. This is consistent with the holy cities' traditions of generosity and scholarship, for it was in Makkah and Madinah that for centuries many of the Islamic world's great minds naturally met, and many stayed on to study or teach for varying lengths of time.

This legacy is preserved in Makkah at Umm al-Qura University, which takes its name from one of the holy city's appellations, "the mother of villages." In Madinah, too, as in the past, students from throughout the Muslim world come to study: Some 85 percent of the students at that city's Islamic University, founded in the 1960's, are non-Saudis who receive tuition-free religious education. When they return to their home countries, they take with them deeper knowledge of the Qur'an, hadith and the Arabic language—as well as vivid memories of the Prophet's city.

Speaking to a gathering of pilgrims some three decades ago, the late King Faisal said,

When God bestowed on us the honor of being the servants of His House and of looking after His Pilgrims, He enabled us to say with pride that we are meeting brothers in our religion who have come to perform one of the basic duties of Islam.... Islam, my friends, is a message to all the world and not a special privilege of a specific country or a specific people. So let all unite and cooperate for the good of their world and their religion.

As the kingdom celebrates the conquest 100 hijri years ago that brought unity to Arabia, the Islamic commitment to a far greater unity, and to stewardship, finds two of its most inspiring expressions in the very places where the faith was born 14 centuries ago.

Greg Noakes is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran

This article appeared on pages 48-67 of the January/February 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1999 images.