Holy Cities

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The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said that a Muslim should not embark on a pilgrimage or pious visit to any mosque other than the Holy Sanctuary of Mecca, the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This statement in a sense maps out the sacred geography of the Islamic landscape. Muslims revere the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem primarily because of the powerful spiritual symbolism associated with these sanctuaries.

Different religious traditions define sacred space according to different criteria, alluding to the multiplicity of ways in which holiness is conceptualized. Some traditions hold that sacred space is discovered through the manifestation of the divine, while others argue that holiness is created through a process of cultural labor. In the Islamic tradition, the origins and the performance of rituals of worship play an integral part in the sanctification of space. As such, the concept of the holy is more closely linked to the process of cultural labor, whereby space is sanctified due to its function in divine communion and not because of the perceived manifestation of the divine in a certain place. Therefore, the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are embraced as holy and regarded as sacred centers because of their intimate association with fundamental Islamic ritual practices.

In order to grasp the significance of these holy cities to the Muslim imagination their religious symbolism needs to be emphasized alongside their histories. Foremost among the three centers is Mecca, followed by Medina, and finally Jerusalem.


The city of Mecca has been venerated as a holy center since time immemorial. In the pre-Islamic period it served as a center of pilgrimage for the pagan Arabs and was home to their most important idol deities. Muslims, however, view Mecca as the center of monotheism and the city where the Ka˓ba, the first house for the exclusive worship of the one true God—Allah—was established. The prophet Abraham is reported to have built the Ka˓ba in this barren valley by divine command. Abraham had long before left his son, Isma˓il, with his mother, Hagar, in this place, also by divine command. Returning many years later, Abraham and his son undertook the construction of the Ka˓ba. The Arabs, who are the progeny of Isma˓il, flourished in the region but deviated from the pure monotheism of their noble ancestors, and at the time of the birth of the prophet Muhammad, Mecca was a center of idol-worship.

When Muhammad began preaching his message he was severely persecuted by his fellow Meccans and was forced to seek asylum in the nearby city of Medina. With the rise of Islam, the Prophet was finally able to conquer Mecca. He entered the city in 630 c.e., purging it of all its idols and reestablishing the Ka˓ba as a symbol of pure monotheism once again. Mecca thus became a center of Muslim pilgrimage (hajj). Even today, Muslims from all over the world congregate in the city annually to perform the hajj, which is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam.

The Prophet did not choose to remain in Mecca, and settled in Medina instead. Thus, Mecca never became a city of any political significance, and the seat of governance in the Muslim world was always located elsewhere. The only time the city was of political importance was during the brief period after the death of the caliph Mu˓awiya. He was succeeded by his son Yazid in 680 c.e., but his rule was contested by ˓Abdallah ibn Zubayr, who was proclaimed caliph in Mecca. Ibn Zubayr managed to gain ascendancy over most of Arabia and certain parts of Iraq, but was finally crushed and killed by the Ummayad general al-Hajjaj in 692 c.e.

When the Abbasids ousted their Ummayad cousins, they chose to continue ruling from Baghdad. Mecca was well patronized by the Abbasid caliphs, and they distributed vast sums of money to its inhabitants during their visits on pilgrimage. The appearance of the Qarmitiyya, a militant sect opposed to the Abbasids, made some impact on the history of Mecca in this era. Over a fifty-year period, the sect made constant raids on pilgrim caravans, and in 930 c.e. they raided Mecca, massacring its inhabitants. They even carried away the Black Stone, the cornerstone that marks the beginning of the ritual of circumambulation around the Ka˓ba. It was, however, returned some twenty years later, and a relatively calm state of affairs ensued thereafter, with pilgrimage taking precedence over politics in Mecca once again.

The city's recent history also bears witness to some dramatic political events. In 1979 a group of Saudi militants stormed the sacred sanctuary that houses the Ka˓ba and occupied it for sixteen days, killing many civilians and soldiers in the process. Apart from these infrequent events, however, Mecca has always been of preeminent importance to Muslims because of the Ka˓ba and the hajj. It is solely because of the rituals of hajj performed in the city and its environs that Mecca is haloed in sanctity.

When viewed in terms of sacred geography, the city can best be conceived of as a patchwork of sacred spaces. At the very center is the Ka˓ba, which is for Muslims a veritable gateway opening into the realm of the transcendent. Muslims the world over face in the direction of the Ka˓ba during the performance of the five daily prayers, and the Ka˓ba is undoubtedly the most potent symbol of Islamic identity, due to its intimate association with the obligatory act of prayer. The history of the Ka˓ba is even detailed in the Qur˒an, and it is described as the first house established for the sole purpose of worshipping God (3:96). Although the Qur˒an describes Mecca as being "full of blessing" (3:96) and as an "asylum of security" (5:97), it goes on to emphasize the functional characteristic of the Ka˓ba far more cogently. It was built for no other purpose but the establishment of prayer (14:37).

The immediate vicinity of the Ka˓ba was also regarded as a sanctuary, and as such the Ka˓ba and its surroundings make up the holy Mosque of Mecca, which is commonly known as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Two very important rituals of hajj are performed in this Mosque. The first is the circumambulation of the Ka˓ba. This ritual is associated with Abraham and Isma˓il's building of the house. As they laid the foundations, the two prophets supplicated Allah, imploring for mercy and asking that their sacrifice be accepted. In similar vein, the pilgrim reenacts the process and supplicates Allah as he or she completes the cycles known as tawwaf.

The second ritual performed in the Mosque is the sai˓, which literally means to strive. The pilgrim reenacts the frantic search for water undertaken by Hagar, an African freed slave, who ran between the two hills of Saffa and Marwa. Abraham had left her there, alone with her son, without any provisions. She ran between the two hills until God finally rewarded her quest with the blessed well of Zamzam, which suddenly gushed forth from the ground. The pilgrim therefore recalls the anguish of this noble woman, and is also reminded of the mercy of Allah.

Another sacred space linked to the pilgrimage is found on the outskirts of Mecca, not too far from the holy Mosque. This is the campsite of Mina. Not only do the pilgrims spend most of the five days of pilgrimage camped at Mina, but they also perform the ritual pelting of Satan there. This ritual is associated with Satan's attempt to dissuade Abraham from obeying Allah's command, and Abraham is reported to have chased the Evil One away by pelting him with pebbles on three occasions. The pilgrim therefore reenacts this event through the ritual pelting, thereby striving to fight his or her own spiritual weakness rejecting temptation. Mina only comes to life once a year, during the pilgrimage, and is virtually uninhabited for the remainder of the year.

Moving on from Mina, the pilgrim follows the path to the plains of Arafat, about 9 kilometers away from central Mecca. Arafat also only comes to life during the pilgrimage, and is the site where the prophet Muhammad delivered the famous last sermon. Standing on the plains of Arafat and supplicating Allah is the pinnacle of the hajj. The pilgrim who does not manage to make his way to Arafat on the specified time and day invalidates his or her pilgrimage and has to perform it over again. This ritual, unlike most of the others, is not related to Abraham and is more directly associated with the prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have said that the essence of pilgrimage is the supplication at Arafat.

Between Mina and Arafat is Muzdallifa, an area intimately linked to the pilgrimage rituals as well. The pilgrim must pass through Muzdallifa on the way back to Mina after completing the supplication at Arafat and perform the obligatory prayers there, as was instructed by the prophet Muhammad.

Like any world capital, Mecca is continuously being transformed and upgraded. The pilgrimage sites have been developed to facilitate the millions that visit there, and the city itself will surely grow and expand in the future. However, Mecca will always retain its aura primarily because of the pilgrimage.


Unlike Mecca, a visit to Medina is not an obligatory part of the pilgrimage, but the Prophet had personally sanctioned journeying to his mosque in Medina for the purpose of ziyara, or pious visit. During the early Islamic era, Medina, called Yathrib in pre-Islamic times, had been the political capital of the nascent Islamic empire. Mecca was and still is by far the more important in terms of sacred geography, however. The oasis town of Yathrib, which lies about 500 kilometers away from Mecca, was renamed in honour of the Prophet, and is more properly referred to as al-Madina al-Munawwarra, or the Illuminated City.

The Prophet had migrated to Medina in 622 c.e., after failing to convince the Meccans of his mission. The city was far more diverse than Mecca, with a population comprised of Jews, Muslims, and idolaters. The Prophet attempted to unite the various factions into a single polity and his efforts were recorded in a pact known as Sahifa al-Madina, or the constitution of Medina. In the interim, the conflict between the nascent Muslim community of Medina and the Meccan pagans continued. The Prophet undertook over seventy expeditions against the Meccans from his new power base in Medina before finally conquering Mecca. The Prophet did not return to Mecca, however, as Medina was now his home. It was from here that he turned his attention to spreading the message of Islam to frontiers beyond the Arabian Peninsula. By the time of his death in 632 c.e., Islam stood poised to conquer the Byzantine Romans and the Persians that threatened its northern frontiers.

Medina remained the political capital of the Islamic Empire during the reign of the four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet. With the outbreak of civil war during the reign of ˓Ali (the last of the four caliphs) the city slowly began to lose political importance. ˓Ali left Medina in October 656 c.e. to quell insurrections in Iraq and never returned. The city of Kufa was for a brief period the center of events, but with the ascendancy of Mu˓awiya as caliph in 661 c.e., Damascus became the political capital of the Muslim world. Apart from isolated instances of upheaval, not much else occurred in Medina that was of major political significance from here on.

While Medina may have become completely marginalized in the political sphere, it gained considerable fame as a center of Islamic intellectual life. The scholars of Medina played an important role in the early development of Islamic jurisprudence and in the collection of hadith (prophetic traditions). In this important formative period, the legal school of Medina was made famous through the work of one of its most outstanding scholars, Malik ibn Anas, who died in 795 c.e.

However, it is neither the intellectual nor the early political status of Medina that is ultimately of primary importance to the Muslim community. Medina is venerated because it is the city of the Prophet of Islam and the first Islamic polity. It is in Medina that Islam took root and was strengthened. The city is also the site of a few important mosques that are intimately associated with the history of the ritual prayers. This is perhaps the main reason why the Prophet encouraged Muslims to visit Medina. Its sacred sites not only capture the early history of the prayer ritual, but also strengthen the believer's resolve and commitment to these very practices.

The first mosque built in Medina was the mosque of Quba. This mosque lies on what was then the outskirts of the city, and it is where the Prophet paused for a few days before entering the city. Here he laid the foundations of the Quba Mosque. The mosque at Quba remained dear to the Prophet, and long after he had settled in Medina he would still make his way there on Saturdays to spend time in prayer and reflection. Muslims visiting Medina today still emulate this practice, and follow the path to the mosque of Quba in the early hours on Saturday mornings, where they remain until noon, as was the habit of the Prophet.

Nonetheless, the most important mosque in Medina is still the Prophet's Mosque, also referred to as the Haram al-Madina (the Sanctuary of Medina). The Prophet's own living quarters were attached to the mosque, and when he died he was buried in one of his apartments. The Prophet's gravesite is thus attached to his mosque even today. While orthodox Islamic doctrine frowns upon the veneration of gravesites, Muslims the world over come to the mosque to visit the grave. This practice is tolerated as long as it is done under the pretext of visiting the mosque, for the Prophet is reported to have said that prayer in his mosque is rewarded more greatly than prayer elsewhere, except for prayer in the haram of Mecca, which carries the highest reward. In Medina, as in Mecca, it is once again the act of prayer that lends sanctity to this important space.

The final mosque that enjoys special status is the Qiblatyn Mosque, which literally means the mosque of two directions. Unlike the first two, this mosque is more of historical than ritual significance. There is no special reward mentioned for praying in it, nor did the Prophet set a precedent of visiting it on a regular basis. However, it is important because of the momentous event that occurred in it. For a period of sixteen months after the Prophet's migration to Medina, the obligatory prayers were performed facing in the direction of Jerusalem. While praying in the Qiblatyn Mosque, the Prophet was ordered by divine directive to change orientation and face the Ka˓ba in Mecca while praying (2:142). Even today, Muslims the world over pray facing Mecca, and in memory of God's command to the Prophet, Muslims still frequent this mosque when visiting Medina.

Religious literature on Medina is replete with accounts that outline the virtues of the city, but many of these are apocryphal and therefore not worthy of mention. Such accounts do, however, lend an added aura and appeal to the holy status of the city, even if they are not really of great importance.


Although Jerusalem's status as the third holy city of Islam is extremely well established in the primary Islamic sources, Muslims do not claim exclusive spiritual rights to the holy city. Jerusalem is dear to all three of the Abrahamic faiths, and has been severely battled over by Muslims, Christians, and Jews through the centuries.

The Jews have always venerated the city as the site of the holy temple, but the pagan Romans had already obliterated all remaining vestiges of Jewish life in Jerusalem about five centuries before the city came under Muslim rule, in 638 c.e. When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, the city was covered in Christian monuments. Although there was no chance of the Jews rebuilding their temple, Constantine did allow them into the city once a year, on payment of a fee, so that they could mourn the destruction of the temple.

In 614 c.e. the Persians captured Jerusalem, massacring thousands of Christians in the process. Fourteen years later, the Roman emperor Heraclius was able to drive the invaders out and recover the land and the city. He, in turn, wreaked a terrible vengeance upon the Jews, who were accused of colluding with the Persian invaders. At the dawn of Islam, therefore, the Jewish presence in Jerusalem had once again been viciously purged by the Christians.

The Islamic Empire underwent massive expansion after the demise of the Prophet. In the reign of the third caliph, ˓Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Byzantines conceded Jerusalem to Islam. In 638 c.e., the caliph himself accepted the capitulation of the city from its Christian patriarch, Sophronius. In an unprecedented display of tolerance, ˓Umar granted the Christians protection of their religious sites and vouched for their safety. He even refused the patriarch's offer to perform the midday prayer in a Christian shrine, recognizing the significance of the prayer in the appropriation and sanctification of space. He explained his reasons for refusing, saying that he did not want to create a pretense for future generations that may seek justification for the confiscation of this Christian shrine and turn it into a place of Islamic worship.

˓Umar immediately set about identifying the sites that were of religious significance to Muslims. Jerusalem is mentioned in the Qur˒an as the city to which the Prophet had traveled in a night journey and in which he had assembled with all the previous prophets, leading them in prayer. ˓Umar therefore sought out this area and marked it out as a sanctuary. It was here that the al-Aqsa mosque was built. The Prophet is then reported to have ascended to the heavens, where the five daily prayers were obligated upon him and his followers by Allah. His ascension was from a large rock, which was discovered under a dung heap, indicating that the area of the sanctuary was of no significance to the other religious communities at that time. ˓Umar ordered the area to be cleaned and performed the prayers there. Building of the structure known as the Dome of the Rock commenced round about 688 c.e. on the order of ˓Abd al-Malik ibn al-Marwan, the fifth caliph after Mu'awwiya.

Jerusalem became known to Muslims as Bayt al-Maqdis or simply al-Quds (the Holy City). It was thereafter patronized and maintained as a sacred site by all the Muslim caliphs from the Abbasids right through to the Ottomans, who finally lost the city to British mandate in the early twentieth century. The city remained under Muslim rule for thirteen centuries, with the exception of the brief interruption effected by the Crusades. In this long period, the greatest calamity to have befallen Islam was the loss of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099 c.e. The city was finally reconquered by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) ninety years later, in 1187 c.e. In the interim, thousands of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the name of Christ. Saladin displayed remarkable tolerance not only to the Jews, but to the Christians as well, and under his rule the Jewish community once again thrived in the city, finding safe asylum from persecution there.

It is important to note that no Jewish place of worship is made mention of from the time of the Arab conquest in Jerusalem. Mention of the Wailing Wall as a place where pious Jews came to lament the loss of the temple only appeared around the time of Saladin's reconquest. This wall was identified as the Western wall of the Al-Aqsa compound, and Jews from thereon frequented the place to pray.

This act of devotion was tolerated by the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem, with the gravest of consequences in recent times, after the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in occupied Palestine. What was initially a gesture of tolerance came to be held by some faithful Jews as an absolute right, not merely of access but ultimately of possession. Today the strife between Jews and Muslims over the site of the al-Aqsa complex rages fiercely.

United Nations attempts to accord the city of Jerusalem international status, with equal access for all three faith-groups, has up until now been unsuccessful. What Jerusalem needs today is the tolerance and foresight of a modern-day ˓Umar or Saladin; a leader with the temperament to show equal respect to all three faiths and uphold the sanctity of Jerusalem to the benefit of all.

Holy cities or sites are inextricably linked with the transcendent and will always dominate the religious imagination, in spite of the tremendous toll sometimes exacted through conflict and contestation. It is only in these sacred spaces that human mortality is ultimately transcended, enabling the believer to stand in the presence of the divine. As long as Muslim practice and faith prevail, there will always be people who lay claim to the sanctity of the three spiritual capitals of the Islamic world: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

See alsoCaliphate ; Dome of the Rock ; ˓Ibadat ; Mi˓raj ; Muhammad .


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Aslam Farouk-Alli

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