Ibn ‘Big Ben’ Casts its Shadow over Mecca

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Without a doubt the most sacred site in the history of Islam is the precinct at Mecca around the black stone known as the Ka’aba.

Images of the holy site have adorned Islamic manuscripts for centuries, as millions of pilgrims have made the trip to see the holy city over the years, some taking months to reach their goal. In this last pilgrimage it is estimated that some three million Muslims partook in the annual hajj.

Accommodating such a large number of people, no matter how holy their demeanor, is no easy task. But neither is it easy to resist the temptation of making money off the pilgrims, even for adherents to a religion that denigrates the age-old financial burden of usury.

One can understand the need to provide hotel rooms for the faithful, but do they really need Gucci bags to pack their plain white dress in after the fact? Apparently the royal family of the House of Saud thinks so, given the massive “Royal Mecca Clock Tower” rising up out of the dust where Ibrahim once walked and the Prophet Muhammad preached. And it is much more than a Babel-like tower: a pseudo-Islamic, capitalist Disneyland for the weary pilgrim.

In an article in today’s The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff describes the tower with these discomforting words:

It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.

The current guardians of the two holy mosques, swept into power with the iconclastic fervor of a tribal shaykh married to an ultra-conservative religious message, have found a new way to bring Mecca into the 21st century: a shopping mall that begs to be dubbed Ibn Big Ben.

Remember the original Big Ben? It was designed as part of Westminster Palace after a major destructive fire in 1834. The architect was a certain Augustus Pugin, who shortly thereafter went stark raving mad. It is not entirely clear why the tower, or more precisely the large bell inside one of the faces, was labeled “Big Ben,” but it may have been after a contemporary English Heavyweight Champion named Benjamin Caunt. If you want to hear the real Big Ben, all you have to do is tune into the BBC World Service. Only in Mecca does Big Ben now announce “Allah” in neon brilliance.

In the Saudi version it seems the child is father to the man, at least commercially. It promises to be six times the size of the original. And it will be only 11 meters shorter than the world’s largest tower, Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa; apparently the Saudi royal family did not want to be inhospitable to their neighboring UAE emir. The clock itself comes from Germany. The cost of the whole complex is estimated at about 3 billion dollars. And here is the best part, at least for conspiracy theorists: the contractor for this megamonstrosity is the Bin Laden group, building a tower taller than the one a Bin Laden family member caused to crumble.

If you are looking for a luxury hotel and happen to be Muslim, then the Raffles Makkah Palace is the place for you. That is if you own a gold mine or have dictatorily ripped off your citizens in a Muslim-majority country.

The rate for a Royal Suite with a Kaaba View, quoted online today, is a mere 4950 Saudi riyals, which is about $1,320. OK, so imagine that the Prophet Muhammad, with his earnings as a caravan driver, were to return to Mecca today. He probably would not be recognized, because the most devout Saudis think what they wear is exactly what the Prophet wore.

But let us say he walks into the hotel Raffles. I suspect that before he has a chance to say anything, the security guards will escort him out as too poor to afford even coffee in the coffee shop. But let us imagine he makes it to the registration desk and a fellow from Bangladesh or the Philippines asks if he has a reservation. I suspect that looking around at the costly grandeur of the hotel, the Prophet would indeed have reservations. A passage from surat al-Nisa (4:38) may come to mind:

And those who spend their wealth in order for people to see, and do not accept faith in Allah nor the Last Day; and whoever has Satan (the devil) as a companion – so what an evil companion is he!

It seems that the Wahhabi elite creating this palatial hotel next to the Ka’aba have so concentrated on the second part of this verse that they have forgotten the first part. If making a replica of Big Ben next to the sacred precinct is not spending wealth for people to see, I do not know what else this verse could mean.

And then there is the Prophet’s concern about idols. When Muhammad entered Mecca on his first pilgrimage after the hijra, he entered the complex and destroyed the idols and icons (except perhaps those of Jesus and Mary). What would the Prophet Muhammad say about a hotel that caters only to the rich and super-rich within a short walking distance from the main gate to the holy precinct? And which of the 4000 stores in the mega shopping mall would the Prophet shop in?

Would he drop by Gucci’s for an expensive leather handbag? Perhaps buy an expensive Parisian perfume or Godiva chocolates for Aisha? Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple in his day; I wonder what Muhammad would do to the foreign commercial idolatry on display in the Abraj al-Bayt mall?

If the Prophet is thirsty, there is no need for him to draw water from Zamzam, since level 1 of the mall has a Starbucks, one of its 1658 coffee clutch holes world wide. And one which conspiracy theorists are quick to point out, has an Israeli connection. But I have a conspiracy theory of my own to suggest. One of the Saudi princes must have passed over the University of Notre Dame on the way to medical help at the Mayo Clinic. If so, it must have been exhilarating and disturbing at the same time to see the infamous American Catholic icon of “Touchdown Jesus.”

Could this have been the inspiration for Ibn Big Ben, choosing a seemingly secular yet royal image for the faithful to see as they pray at the Ka’aba? After all, it would not do to have an image of Muhammad outside the gates of the holy precinct. I wonder. Look for yourself in the image below and let me know what you think?

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