In Arabic Makka, city in southern Hijaz, about 70 miles from the coast of the Red Sea, the holy city of Islam and birthplace of muḤammad.
The city lies in a slight depression in the surrounding low hills. The region is oppressively hot, almost completely infertile, and devoid of rainfall, though infrequent winter storms of great violence with their concomitant torrents (sayl, pl. suyûl ) present a serious threat to the lower parts of the city. The earliest history of Mecca is altogether obscure; no doubt its foundation is due to the presence of water (the sacred spring of Zamzam) and its position at the hub of a number of important trade routes joining Yemen and thereby Abyssinia and India in the south to Palestine, Syria, and Iraq in the north. According to tradition, a certain Quṣayy is said to have installed the tribe Quraysh as masters of the town over the Khuzâ’a. At the time of Muḥammad the city existed entirely on trade, although because of the presence of the Ka’aba (sacred Black Stone) it already formed an important religious center for the pagan Arabs. Under the reign of the umayyads there was much building in the city, the great mosque (al-masjid al-harām ) being completed under al-Walīd I, while a number of dikes were constructed in order to protect the Ka’aba from the danger of the sayl. During the period of the ’abbĀsids (750-960) the city was ruled by governors appointed from Baghdad, but even from the time of al-Ma’mūn (813-833) the whole region around Mecca and Medina and Tā’if fell into near anarchy. It was subjected to the raids of the 'Alids [see ‘alĪ (‘alĪ ibn abĪ ṬĀlib)] some of whom managed to make themselves rulers of the holy city for brief periods. In 930 it was plundered by the Karmatians (al-Qarāmiṭa ), who carried off the Black Stone, returning it finally in 950. With the rise of the Būyids in Baghdad (945) and the
Fāṭimids in Egypt (969), the 'Alids, taking on the title of sharīf, became the rulers of Mecca, with varying degrees of dependence upon Egypt. Under the rule of ‘Ajlān (1346-75) the Sharīfs gave up the Zaydī creed (see shĪ'tes) to follow the orthodox Shāfi‘ī system thereafter. There was again a major political change with Sultan Selîm's conquest of Egypt (1517); the relative dependence of Mecca upon Constantinople and Egypt then varied with the relative strengths of the two. The city was taken by the wahhĀbis in 1803 but was freed by Muḥammad ‘Alī in 1813. In 1916 the last of the Sharīfs, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, made himself ruler of the independent kingdom of the Hijaz but was forced to flee when the Wahhābi ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn Sa’ūd took the city in October 1924; he was there proclaimed king of Hijaz in 1926. In the following year the sultanate of the Nejd became the Kingdom of saudi arabia, with the ruler of the combined kingdoms residing at Riyadh.
[r. m. frank/eds.]
Makkah al-Mukarramah, or “Mecca the blessed,” as it is called by the government of Saudi Arabia, is the holiest city in Islam. Its unique status derives from its links to the rise of monotheism and the triumph of Islam in Arabia, and its role as a pilgrimage destination for all Muslims.
The pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj )—once in one’s lifetime—is a religious duty for Muslims who can afford it. Pilgrimages to the vicinity predate the founding of Islam (there were evidently pre-Islamic pilgrimages to nearby Arafat and Mina, and the Kaaba was a religious site before it became a focus of worship for Muslims), but the Islamic Mecca hajj is more than 1,300 years old. Muhammad himself completed the pilgrimage in year 10 of the Muslim calendar (632 CE). In modern times, several million Muslims converge on Mecca each year during the last month of the Muslim calendar (Dhu al-Hijjah, literally “Lord of the Pilgrimage”) to perform the necessary rituals, demonstrate and renew their faith, and seek forgiveness for sins. This huge annual gathering of believers from every continent is unique among contemporary religions. Located about 80 kilometers inland from the Red Sea in a desert valley, Mecca could be reached by pilgrims only after extraordinary travels and hardships before the rise of modern transportation in the twentieth century, but now it is serviced by an international airport at nearby Jeddah.
The experience of the pilgrimage combines obedience to prescribed rites, some unavoidable discomfort or even suffering, and, frequently, the exhilaration of religious renewal. As with all major historical pilgrimages, commerce and services have always flourished within and around the hajj. In the contemporary world the hajj also strengthens the sense among Muslims of a worldwide community of believers. The hajj is a leveler: men and women wear the same simple forms of clothing for the rituals (for men, two white cloths wrapped around the body; for women, a simple dress with a head covering). Differences of wealth and status are temporarily put aside as the worshippers submerge themselves in a sea of believers who are—as pilgrims—equal before God. In addition to wearing these simple white clothes, pilgrims must also refrain from anger, disputes, and sexual relations so that they may focus on obedience and devotion to God.
The specific rituals of the hajj cannot be understood without reference to ancient traditions about Ibrahim (Abraham), his wife Hagar, and his son Isma‘il (Ishmael), the supposed progenitors of the peoples of Arabia. Some of the rituals reenact the struggles of Hagar and Isma‘il to survive in the desert: for example, pilgrims walk and run seven times between the sites of two ancient hills near Mecca, as Hagar did to seek water for her son. The rituals also include stoning a pillar representing the devil, to commemorate Ibrahim’s attempts to fulfill what he believed to be his mission to sacrifice his son. This sacrifice proved to be unnecessary, and Ibrahim was allowed to substitute the sacrifice of an animal. Subsequently, Ibrahim and Isma‘il established a holy shrine in the desert that became the cubical structure known as the Kaaba, in Mecca. Although that shrine incorporated icons used for polytheistic worship in pre-Islamic times, these elements were removed after the conquest of Mecca by the Muslim army, led by Muhammad, in 630 CE.
Some elements of the hajj have been modernized. For example, the sacrifice of animals by small groups of worshippers in the traditional hajj (for piety and the sustenance of believers, as the Qur’an asserts, not as offerings sent to God) has been replaced by a sanitized industrial slaughter, after which the meat is packed and shipped to developing Muslim countries overseas. However, the hajj remains an extraordinary demonstration of adherence to ritual traditions as worshippers reenact and remember the struggles and piety of the founders of an ancient and still vibrant monotheism.
SEE ALSO Muhammad
Hassaballa, Hesham A., and Kabir Helminski. 2006. The Beliefnet Guide to Islam. New York: Three Leaves Press, Doubleday.
Peters, F. E. 1994. The Hajj. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mecca, also known as Makkah, is a Muslim holy city in Arabia located in Hijāz, some forty-six miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jidda. The holy city surrounds the Kaʿbah, a rectangular building called the "House of God" (bayt allāh). The Kaʿbah had been known as a sacred sanctuary long before Islam appropriated it as the qiblah (the source of orientation in prayer) for its followers. The Qurʾan speaks about "the House" (al-bayt), "a place of visitation for the people and a sanctuary," and attributes the "raising of the foundations" of the Kaʿbah to Abraham and his son Ishmael (Qurʾan 2:125–127). The Arab tribes in Mecca traced their genealogy to Ishmael, but their legend connected the city and its sanctuary with Adam, for whom God built the original Kaʿbah. Abraham "raised the foundations" of the shrine after its destruction in the Flood. Today the Kaʿbah is taller and more firmly built than the original edifice, which was described in early sources as "made of loose stones above a man's height." The Kaʿbah determines the ritual direction, the focal point toward which all devotional acts and sacred buildings in Islam are oriented. Today, Muslims in the United States and throughout the world observe this ritual orientation.
Mecca is not situated in an agricultural area. In ancient times it had access to sufficient underground water for its inhabitants and was protected from invasion by surrounding hills. Later it came to possess the respected shrine to which the Arab tribes would make pilgrimage. The generations following Abraham had introduced idolatrous, polytheistic practices in the shrine, contrary to the pure monotheism of Abraham. The annual fairs took the form of pilgrimages, which brought prosperity by combining religious rituals with opportunities for trade. In due course Mecca became the most important trading center in Arabia. Trade routes connected it northward to Syria, northeastward to Iraq, southward to the Yemen, and westward to Tidda, the Red Sea port. Some generations before Muhammad, who died in 632, a tribe called the Quraysh, under the leadership of Qusayy, took over the springs there and the shrine. The Quraysh rebuilt and roofed the Kaʿbah, draping it with a black cloth known as kiswah. To protect the tribes that came for trade and pilgrimage, the Meccans established four sacred truce months during which fighting was prohibited. Mecca provided a point of convergence for the Arabs, who maintained their solidarity through worship at the Kaʿbah. A common cult had emerged to provide the collective practice of circling the Kaʿbah a fixed number of times and touching the Black Stone in one corner. In the Kaʿbah a great many sacred tokens of all the clans of Mecca were gathered to share in its sacredness. Nearby there was a sacred well, called zamzam. The space around the sanctified area, extending all around Mecca, was regarded as ḥaram, an area in which fighting was taboo even when it was not a truce month.
Muhammad was born in Mecca in about 570. The Meccan moral, social, and spiritual conditions were ripe for a reformer to make a lasting impact in the region. When he emerged as a prophet in 610, the Meccans initially rejected his monotheism as a challenge to their polytheistic cults, which had made Mecca an important commercial and financial center. But many Meccans, caught up in the materialism and weakening interpersonal relations of the era, found Muhammad's message increasingly relevant. In 622 Muḥammad was forced to leave his native city and to migrate to Medina, also known as Madina. This journey was called the hijra. In 630 Mecca opened its gates to Muhammad, who was able to take it without bloodshed. The Kaʿbah was cleansed of the pre-Islamic sacred objects, but the Black Stone was retained. In 632, just before his death that year, Muhammad performed the ḥajj, in which he established the Islamic rituals that are emulated by Muslims even today. As the spiritual significance of Mecca increased, its commercial and political significance declined. Today all Muslims, in the United States and elsewhere, have a duty to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if their circumstances permit it.
Mecca has witnessed numerous struggles for supremacy among Muslim rulers of different dynasties, who at one time or another intervened in Meccan affairs to control its growing wealth through endowments and to acquire the prestige of being the protectors of the "House of God." The last in the line of the rulers were the Suʿūd, who gained complete control of Mecca and Medina in December 1925. In Mecca, Wahhābī forces, in accord with their opposition to anything that smacked of idolatry, destroyed a number of domed tombs, the reputed birthplace of the Prophet, and two houses revered as those of Khadīja (Muhammad's first wife) and Abū Bakr (the first caliph). Despite the iconoclastic attitudes of the Suʿūdis, the entire institution of the annual pilgrimage has continued to provide the regime with a religious prestige and acceptance. Maintenance of order and peace during the pilgrimage season has been one of their major achievements. The main mosque and other religious buildings have been expanded and renovated extensively since the Suʿūdis took over Mecca.
The requirement of the pilgrimage and the desire of the pious to live and die near the "House of God" have given Mecca a unique position among the Muslim holy cities. The population is a highly mixed one. Much of the city's life is dominated by the pilgrimage and the ceremonies connected with the various holy sites in or around the city. Religious occasions form part of the rhythm of participation in the life of the city. Besides the proper ḥajj season, there are numerous occasions for the performance of the ʿumra (the lesser pilgrimage) throughout the year, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. The pilgrimage service industry has grown over the centuries and is highly specialized. The guides (mutawwifūn) for the intending pilgrims from different parts of the Muslim world work closely with particular ethnic groups through the various arrangements that must be made with great precision to supply the material needs and facilitate the performance of the prescribed rites. Today Mecca has been modernized, and its complex infrastructure has evolved to meet the requirements of a city whose fixed population is three hundred thousand residents but that swells to some two million during the primary pilgrimage period.
To Muslims throughout history, Mecca has furnished a focus in their spiritual quest and has reenacted its symbolic presence in all sacred buildings of Islam—in the United States and throughout the world. The Kaʿbah is the center as well as the orientation of Muslim devotion to God, the "Lord of the House."
Farāhānī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ḥusyanī. A Shīʿite Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1885 –1886: The Safarnameh of Mīrzā Muḥammad Hosayn Farahanī, edited, translated, and annotated by Hafez Farmayan and Elton L. Daniel. 1990.
Long, David E. The Hajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage. 1979.
"Makkah." In Encylopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. VI.
Peters, F. E. Jerusalem and Mecca: The Typology of the HolyCity in the Near East. 1986.
Peters, F. E. Mecca and the Hijaz: A Literary History ofthe Muslim Holy Places. 1994.
Abdulaziz A. Sachedina
Mecca, known to the Muslim faithful as Umm al-Qura, the Mother of Cities, is the holiest place in the Islamic world. It was here that Muhammad the Prophet (c. 570–632), the Messenger of God, the founder of the Muslim faith, was born in 570, and it is here within the Great Mosque that the Ka'aba, the most sacred shrine of Islam, awaits the Muslim pilgrim. Throughout the world, wherever they may be, all devout Muslims pray five times per day, each time bowing down to face Mecca. All able-bodied Muslims who have sufficient financial means and whose absence from their families would not create a hardship must undertake a pilgrimage, a hajj, to Mecca once in their lifetime during the Muslim month of Dhu-al-Hijah (the twelfth lunar month).
Physically, Mecca is located about 45 miles east of the Red Sea port of Jedda, a city surrounded by the Sirat Mountains. Born into a well-to-do family, Muhammad married Khadija, a woman of means, and became the manager of her caravans. It was when he was about 40 years old and was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira that he had the first of a series of visions of the angel Gabriel who instructed him concerning the oneness of God. Later, Muhammad's many revelations and visions would be collected into the sacred book of Muslims, the Qur'an (or Koran), but when he first began sharing the essence of his revelations with his fellow Meccans, they rejected the teachings and reacted with great hostility when he began to lecture them concerning their vices and pagan practices.
In 622, Muhammad left Mecca for Yathrib, which was later renamed Medina, City of the Prophet, where he began to amass many followers. After eight years of strife between the people of Mecca and Muhammad, he returned to the city of his birth with an army and met with little resistance when he proceeded to cleanse the Ka'aba of pagan idols and dedicate the shrine to Allah, the One God.
On the plains of Arafat in 632, Muhammad preached to an assembled crowd that tradition numbers as some 30,000 of his followers. After he had completed his message, he declared that he had now fulfilled his mission on Earth. Two months later, he died at Medina. Within 100 years, the Muslim faith had spread from Spain to India. In the twenty-first century, Islam is one of the world's largest religions with an estimated membership of 1.2 billion.
The pilgrimage (hajj) to the sacred city of Mecca and experience of worshipping at the mosque containing the Ka'aba is strictly limited to those who follow the Islamic faith. There is an area of several miles around Mecca that is considered to be haram (restricted), and non-Muslims are forbidden to enter this sacred zone. Those Muslims who travel into this area as they progress toward the Mother of Cities must profess their having undergone a state of ritual purity and consecration. It is at this point that they set aside the clothes in which they have traveled and don a special article of clothing consisting of two seamless white sheets.
The hajj begins with a procession called the tawaf, which takes the pilgrim around the Ka'aba seven times. The Ka'aba is a cube-shaped structure that stands about 43 feet high, with regular sides from 36 to 43 feet. The building is draped in a black cloth (kiswah ) that bears a band of sacred verses embroidered in gold and silver thread. In the southeastern corner of the Ka'aba is the sacred Black Stone, an ancient holy relic about 11 inches wide and 15 inches high that has been mounted in silver. Muslims believe that Allah sent the Black Stone from heaven. It is the fortunate pilgrim who manages to break free from the press of the crowd and kiss the Black Stone. Because of the great mass of humanity crowding into the Ka'aba at any given moment, it had been decreed centuries ago that the gesture of a kiss toward the stone will suffice and merit a great blessing.
The second element of the hajj is the run seven times between two small hills, al-Safwa and al-Marwa, which are enclosed and connected with a walkway immediately adjoining the mosque courtyard. The third aspect of the pilgrimage involves walking about five miles to the town of Mina, then onward to the plain of Arafat, 10 miles farther to the east. The time of the journey is spent in prayer and meditation. As the pilgrims walk back toward Mina, they stop to throw small stones at three pillars, an act which symbolically recalls the three occasions when Abraham threw stones at Satan, who was tempting him to disobey God's command to sacrifice his son. After they walk the five miles back to Mecca, the final stage of the hajj is achieved with a festival in which a sheep, goat, cow, or camel is sacrificed to commemorate the moment when God rescinded the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son and permitted him to slay a ram and offer its blood in Isaac's stead. The hajj concludes with a final procession around the Ka'aba. The hajj generally lasts about 13 days, but when as many as two million pilgrims crowd into Mecca to observe the annual event, it may last a day or two longer to accommodate the vast numbers of the faithful.
Crim, Keith, general ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.
Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans' Publishing Company, 1994.
Harpur, James. The Atlas of Sacred Places. Old Say-brook, Conn.: Konecky & Konecky, 1994.
Hixon, Lex. Heart of the Koran. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing Co., 1988.
Westwood, Jennifer. Mysterious Places. New York: Galahad Books, 1996.
Situated about 45 miles east of the Red Sea port of Jeddah in the rocky foothills of the Hijaz Mountains, Mecca has a hot, arid climate, and lack of water and other resources have kept its population and economic fortunes heavily dependent on outside factors. The estimated two million pilgrims who visit the city each year during the hajj season have a vital impact on the local economy. Many of Mecca's inhabitants work in the large service industry that caters to the hajjis, providing transport, security, food, lodging, medical care, and other services. Because many pilgrims from around the world have settled in the city, its population is the most ethnically varied in Saudi Arabia. According to a 2000 estimate there were 1.3 million inhabitants. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the city and its environs.
In the sixth century c.e. Mecca became an important market town and stopping point along the caravan routes connecting Yemen with Syria. A square stone structure called the Kaʿba, believed to have been built by Ibrahim (Abraham), also gave the city religious importance. The city is paramount in the history of Islam because it was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, the site of many of his revelations from God, the focal point of daily prayer and the main center of pilgrimage. The Kaʿba became the center of the Islamic pilgrimage ritual, and the Grand Mosque eventually was built up around it. The sacred precinct of Mecca extends as far as 14 miles outward from the Kaʿba in an irregular circle. Inside it, a number of prohibitions apply, including bans on fighting, cursing, hunting, and uprooting plants.
Despite its continuing religious significance, Mecca lost its political importance in the seventh century (the first century of Islam) when the capital of the caliphate moved first to Medina and later outside Arabia altogether. Thus Mecca became a provincial backwater ruled by governors appointed from afar. But as central authority weakened, local sharifs claiming descent from the prophet Muhammad were able to assert their control and remain substantially in power from about 965 to 1924, but never with full independence. From 1517, the sharifs fell under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire but remained effective local rulers, sharing power with the Turkish governors of Jidda. From 1916 to 1924, Mecca was part of the short-lived Kingdom of the Hijaz proclaimed by the last sharif, but then was conquered and incorporated into Saudi Arabia.
see also hijaz; islam; kaʿba; muhammad; qurʾan.
De Gaury, Gerald. Rulers of Mecca. London: Harrap, 1951.
Peters, F. E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Peters, F. E. Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Sabini, John. Armies in the Sand: The Struggle for Mecca and Medina. New York; London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.
Wolfe, Michael, ed. One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
khalid y. blankinship
updated by anthony b. toth
Ancient city (sometimes rendered as Makka) in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula; the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the holiest city in Islam. Mecca has been the spiritual and historical pole of the Muslim faithful since the seventh century; it is the place toward which all Muslims orient themselves during prayer, and the destination of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, made by pious Muslims. It is the site of the Kaʿba and the well of Zamzam, sites of veneration since, as Muslims believe, Abraham passed by them. Near the Kaʿba are the tombs of Ismaʿil (Ishmael) and his mother, Hagar.
Mecca is located east of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, and is dominated by Mount Arafat. Once an important commercial station on the road between Syria and Yemen, this city was in ancient times already a place of pilgrimage for Arab tribes, where polytheistic cults abounded, although archaelogical excavations are rarely conducted because of the growth of the city and religious sensibilities.