From Doha to Makkah
By Dr Khurshid Alam Khan
For some years, our son and his family have been residing in Doha, Qatar, providing us the opportunity to visit them once or twice a year. These visits are always enjoyable. The journey from Karachi to Doha is relatively short and the city is both modern and safe. During our last visit in February this year, we decided to make a road trip to Saudi Arabia to perform Umra. We thought it would be a new and exciting experience for the whole family. And, we were not disappointed.
The Saudi border is about a two-hour drive from Doha and, thanks to the digitization of all the data systems, the immigration formalities were completed smoothly and without much delay, As we crossed into Saudi Arabia, we immediately noticed a difference in the dissemination of information. In Doha, all information for visitors is conveniently posted in both English and Arabic, but starting at the Saudi immigration point and further along into the kingdom, we had to bid farewell to the English notices. All message and road signs were in Arabic only.
It took us five hours driving to reach Riyadh, the capital of the Saudi kingdom, using the grand highway which connects Dhahran in the north and Jeddah in the south. All modern facilities, like petrol pumps, hotels, motels, fast-food restaurants, besides mosques, are located along the roadside and readily accessible to travelers. Riyadh, situated in the heart of the desert, is a clean city with an abundance of high-rise buildings, showcasing some attractive architectures styles.
After an overnight stay in Riyadh, we proceeded to Makkah(spelled as Mecca in the West), an eight-hour drive. At the commencement of our journey, we ran into a sandstorm -- not unusual for deserts -- but to our relief it cleared up quickly as we moved along. Traveling through the desert has its own quaint charm; as far as one could see there was nothing but sand, sand dunes, and occasionally a refreshing sight in the far distances of a green oasis. The color of the sand changes from light yellow to orange and red as one moves on. We could also see herds of black and white camels in the wilderness grazing on shrubs and bushes.
At last, the sand dunes yielded to stony mountains, some of them glistening with a light green color, perhaps because of their contents of copper and iron ores.
Near Makkah, the mountains become high and acquired a brown and grey hue. Makkah and its surroundings consist mostly of barren mountainous land. The city from ancient times has been famous for commercial activity. It was at the crossroad where the caravans used to bring a variety of goods from different countries, stopped and exchanged merchandise before proceeding on their onward journey to Syria and Iraq.
The sacred city has changed noticeably since our last visit here ten years ago for the performance of Hajj, except for the grand mosque, i.e. Masjid-Haram and Khana-e-Kaba; the latter, according to Islamic belief, was reconstructed by the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail in around 2130 BC. Today, it is the center of brisk commercial activity, with shops stocked with high-priced goods. Also, cheaper Chinese goods are in abundance to cater to the needs of all types of pilgrims.
The city is now served by 30 to 40-storied, five-star hotels belonging to international chains. They are luxurious, and close to the mosque, and the sound of Azan and prayers is relayed electronically to all rooms, enabling the pilgrim, if so desired, to pray in his/her hotel room. The hotel ground floors, as is customary in Western countries, house a shopping mall and a food court. The hotel prices vary greatly, depending on location. Those nearer to the Grand Mosque are costlier to stay, while those farther away are cheaper.
Unlike in the past, the pilgrimage season now lasts almost the year round. We found that during our visit, even though the time for Hajj was far, the city was crowded with pilgrims, roughly about 1.5 million, who were there to perform Umra. They were drawn from all parts of the world, especially those countries which were part of former Soviet Union and were denied religious freedom for many, many years
Those interested in archeology and Islamic history will be disappointed in not finding any historical landmark in the city. For example, the houses of the Prophet’s close associates and other similar monuments have not been preserved and no longer exist. We noticed that at the back of the mosque there was a building on which a neon sign was shining, indicating that it was a library, and more significantly Prophet Muhammad’s birth place The reason for the disappearance of the historic sites is said to be the concern of the Saudi Government that some over-zealous religious people might make them objects of idolization.
After staying for four days in Makkah, we continued on our journey to Madinah. It was a four-hour drive on an excellent highway. These days, one travels in full comfort in air conditioned vehicles, and so we could not help wonder how Prophet Muhammad and his companions would have covered this distance, without any roads or protection from oppressive heat while being pursued by the blood-thirsty Quraish. Before Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Madinah, the city was known as Yathrib, (Yasrab) and was largely inhabited by tribes of Arabs and Jews. After the migration of the Prophet, it was named Madinatun Nabi (the city of the Prophet) and Madina-e-Munnawara (the radiant city).
When we visited Madinah ten years ago, the illuminated minarets of the mosque could be seen at night from the outskirts of the city. But now commercialization and high-rise buildings around the mosque have blocked this beautiful sight. Around Madinah, there are still a few historical sites left to visit, among them is the first mosque built by the Prophet, called Masjid-e-Quba, located a few kilometers from Madinah.
Another historic mosque is called Masjid-e-Qiblatain also situated on the outskirts of Madinahh. It is significant that initially Muslims used to pray facing Jerusalem, but in this mosque the Prophet was directed to change the direction and face Khana-e-Kaaba in Makkah. The hills near Madinah where the battle of Uhud took place are another site to visit. During this battle fought against the Quraishi tribes of Makkah, a number of close associates of the Prophet were killed and he himself was injured. The graves of all the Uhud martyrs are within an enclosed space, and one can offer Fateha from outside the enclosure.
Adjacent to the Prophet’s mosque there is the famous graveyard, Jannat-ul-Baqi, (meaning garden of heaven). Here are graves of a number of close associates and relatives of the Prophet, including his daughters, wives and son Ibrahim who died in infancy. Originally, this was a small graveyard, and behind it there used to be a huge Jewish graveyard. Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph, was initially buried in the Jewish graveyard. Later, the Umayyad Caliph Amir Muawiyah1 incorporated this graveyard into Jannat-ul Baqi, thus substantially extending its size. This cemetery is unique as there are no mausoleums or identification signs on individual graves — only an overlay of plain soil and a stone covering it. Without intending to undermine the religious importance of Makkah and Madinah, a visitor today comes away with the strong impression that even in these cities commercialism has triumphed over other considerations.
After visiting Dubai, Abuzahbi and Qatar and observing their progress and high standard of living of the people, it is apparent that a new awakening is spreading through the region. It is noteworthy that the rulers have realized the perils of dependence on diminishing natural resources, and are now diversifying their economy, encouraging the local production of agricultural and dairy products. Results of these efforts are evident everywhere in the cities and towns (The writer is a former Director, Publications Division, Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Karachi).