History repeats itself in cycles. Every cycle repeats and replicates the
folly of what went before. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim
historian and founder of sociology, reached this conclusion after an
extensive study of early Muslim history. Some of the evidence for his
grand theory must have come from the history of Mecca.
Isis, for example, is following a well-trodden path as it fixes its eyes
on Mecca to threaten Saudi Arabia. It is heir to the Qarmatians, a
violent extremist group that flourished during the ninth and tenth
centuries. Like Isis, the Qarmatians began as an armed group fighting
against the excesses of an imperial power — the Abbasids. Like Isis,
they swiftly conquered a territory and established a utopian “Islamic
state”, which extended from Kufa in Iraq around the coastal areas of
southern Iraq and eastern Arabia to Bahrain. And like Isis, the
Qarmatians attracted the dissatisfied and naive young, who they put
through a strict regime of military training and brain-washing.
Mecca is the holiest city of Islam. It is the birthplace of the Prophet
Muhammad, the city where the Sacred Text of Islam, the Koran, was first
revealed. Within the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, there is the Kaaba: a
cuboid structure that is the symbolic focus of all Muslims. It is
towards Mecca, and particularly the Kaaba, that Muslims turn to when
they offer their five obligatory daily prayers. And it is the site of
hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Around three million Muslims, from
all over the world, will gather in Mecca in early October to perform the
hajj this year.
Mecca is thus the ritual heart of Islam. It is also a microcosm of the
Muslim world. What happens in Mecca is taken seriously by, and affects
Muslims, everywhere. This is why if you want to control Islam, you have
to control Mecca.
Attempts to control Mecca have occurred throughout Muslim history with
cyclic regularity. Almost every major dynasty and empire of Islamic
history, from the Umayyad, right at the formative phase of Islam, to the
Abbasids and the Ottomans, have attempted to control Mecca through
invasion, violent suppression, destruction of the Sacred Mosque and the
Kaaba, and plain bribery. Each attempt repeats the destruction and
carnages of the previous one. In certain periods of history, rulers of
Mecca have changed on an almost yearly basis with Iraqis, Syrians,
Egyptians, Turks and the indigenous rulers known as the Sharifs, all
vying with each other for control of the Holy City.
Now the most potent and toxic force in contemporary Islam — the “Islamic
State” of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) — has its eyes fixed on Mecca. An
Isis member, Abu Turab Al Mugaddasi, recently declared on Twitter: “If
Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy
the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.” The
reports that Isis is planning to capture the city of Arar in Saudi
Arabia, close to the Iraqi border, are not surprising. From Arar, Mecca
can be reached within a day. Isis knows that the only way to enhance
legitimacy among Muslims for its “Caliphate” is to control Mecca.
Isis has become a cult around its messianic leader, Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi. The Qarmatian are named after the founder Hamdan Qarmat,
who was seen as the Mahdi, the promised Messiah of Muslim theology.
Both believe that it is legitimate to kill anyone who does not agree
with them or shares their beliefs. But unlike Isis, who claim to be
Sunni, the Qarmatian were Shia of the Ismaili branch.
The Qarmatian threatened Baghdad, and instigated a reign of terror in
Iraq, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula that lasted for almost a century.
However, it is for what they did in, and to, Mecca that they are
The esoteric cult believed that hajj was a pagan superstition. The
Qarmatian echoes the sentiments of Isis: pilgrims go to Mecca “to touch
the stones, not for Allah”. Once they had established their “Islamic
State”, they began raiding pilgrim caravans. Throughout the first
decades of the 10th century, they harassed the hajj caravan from
Baghdad. In 906 they ambushed this caravan and massacred an estimated
20,000 pilgrims. The terror and massacres continued until January 930,
when they attacked Mecca itself. It was the hajj season; the city was
full of unarmed pilgrims. They entered armed and on horseback into the
Sacred Mosque putting the pilgrims going around the Kaaba, praying or
performing other rituals, to the sword. Within a few hours, they
massacred 30,000 pilgrims inside the Sanctuary.
Historians write that the Sacred Mosque and its surrounds overflowed
with blood and bodies. The Qarmations’ leader, Abu Tahir al-Qaramati,
charged with his sword drawn and halted before the Kaaba, where his
horse dropped dung and urinated. He then proceeded to break the door of
the Kaaba and smash the Black Stone, which is attached to the eastern
corner of the Kaaba, and is revered by Muslims as an ancient relic. The
Qarmatians stayed in Mecca for 11 days, during which they systematically
destroyed the Sacred Mosque. When they left they took the Black Stone
with them. It was 20 years before it was eventually returned, in 951, in
pieces. It was joined together and reattached to the Kaaba.
Since then desecration of the Sacred Mosque has occurred with mundane
regularity, most recently in 1979, when another messianic group, led by
the Wahhabi student Juhayman al-Qtaybi, captured the Sacred Mosque. He
was leading a revolt against the ostentatious lifestyle and corruption
of the Saudis. Like Isis, he wanted Muslims to return “to original ways
of Islam”, to end education of women, and isolate themselves from the
rest of the world.
Isis may yet repeat the cycle.
Ibn Khaldun was appalled and troubled by the symptoms that he had
identified of the general condition of the Arabs of his time:
turbulence, messianic cults, terrorism, riven by disputes and rival
claims, religious as well as political. I would say that not much has
changed in this regard.
The historic Qarmatian terror in Mecca and the Isis terror of today
remind me of WB Yeats’s famous poem, The Second Coming. Its Christian
imagery aptly sums up the cyclic nature of violence and mayhem that
Muslim and Mecca have endured:
Ziauddin Sardar is editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim