An Engineer's Excursion into Islam

In some respects I have been fortunate in having chosen a career that has taken me to parts of the world that ‘others cannot reach’. In the mid-1970’s I found myself working in Saudi Arabia at a time when the country was just emerging from its native Arab State into the modern country it is today. Its impressive buildings and modern architecture, together with wide multi-lane highways are something one could never have contemplated at the beginning of the last century.

Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam and the guardian of the Holy Cities of Mecca, where the Prophet Mohammad was born, and Medina where he is buried. Only those of the Islamic faith are allowed to enter these cities and although there are many non-Muslims living in the country, they are there on work or residency permits. The Kingdom does not permit tourism which in some respects is a pity, because the country has an interesting history and there are many fascinating places to see. Some Ackworth old scholars may recall a talk I gave some years ago about the Hejaz Railway and the activities of T E Lawrence.

Although unable to enter Mecca, I found myself in charge of a project designed to protect its Great Mosque against storm damage and flooding. This may seem a bit ridiculous in a country where the average annual rainfall is of the order of 100mm and the summer temperature in the shade can exceed 50C. The Great Mosque, the holiest of Muslim shrines, is located in the centre of the city and in the middle of the Waddi Ibrahim (Abraham). A ‘waddi’ is a dry riverbed and although rain in the region is infrequent, when it does fall it tends to be very intense and disastrous flooding can occur. The dry waddi can become a raging torrent in a matter of minutes and as the infrastructure of the city develops, severe structural damage can result.

Therefore the Great Mosque occupies a vulnerable position and I once owned a photograph showing cars and trucks piled up against the outer walls of the mosque where they had been deposited by the floodwaters. Conditions could arise that would be similar to those that occurred in Boscastle, Cornwall some two years ago, when extensive damage was caused by a flash flood. The purpose of the Mecca scheme was to provide a diversionary system that would protect the Great Mosque from such situations in the future.

Not being permitted to visit Mecca I had to rely on Muslim staff for the detailed surveys and photographs associated with the design. This increased my interest in the history of the city and the Great Mosque and eventually I found myself having a greater knowledge of them than many of my Muslim friends.

The Great Mosque is a four-sided structure, the buildings on each side of which enclose a large open area in the middle of which stands a small structure known as the Holy Ka’aba. This was the first house of worship in Mecca. On one corner of the Ka’aba there is a large stone which is believed to be a meteorite and during the Haj, the annual pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca, the pilgrims touch the stone with their hands as they ritually circulate around the building, a procedure known as the Tawaf. Consequently over the centuries, the stone has become highly polished by the hands of the faithful. One side of the mosque buildings extends in a long arm which encloses a covered passageway. The Haj ceremony with the pilgrims walking around the Ka’aba is frequently shown on television, something that would not have been permitted some years ago. It was Sir Richard Burton the famous explorer who, disguised as an Arab, gained access to the Ka’aba at the risk of his life and a description of what he saw is contained in one of his books.

How did Mecca come to be located at that spot and why was the Great Mosque built in the middle of the waddi? The history of Islam tells the story of how Abraham’s wife Sarah, unable to bear him a child and knowing of her husband’s longing for a son, offered him her slave Hajar, who in due course bore him a male child named Isma’il .In time Sarah also became pregnant and gave birth to a son called Isaac, but she became jealous of Hajar and her son and demanded that Abraham take them into the wilderness and abandon them there. This Abraham did, leaving the mother and son at the place that is now Mecca.

Alone in the desert and fearing for the life of her son and herself, Hajar went in search of water. She climbed a small hill and saw what she thought was a lake but it proved to be a mirage, so she ran to another small hill only to suffer the same experience. She did this seven times in unbearable heat when, exhausted and in despair, she noticed that a small spring had emerged from the ground near the place where she had left her son. This spring is now known as the Zamzam Well and is located within the walls of the Great Mosque. After the Haj, the airports and coach stations are crowded with pilgrims returning to their own countries carrying small plastic jars that contain samples of holy water taken from the Zamzam Well..

Studying the drawings of the mosque and the surrounding waddi, I began to wonder about the existence of the two hills on which Hajar had stood. Where were they, for there was no indication of them on the contoured plans? My enquiries eventually revealed that the hills, known as Al-Safar and Al Marwah, are at the ends of the covered passageway that extends along the side of the mosque. They lie beneath covered domes and the corridor that connects them is known as the Safar Road. A major feature of the Haj ritual involves the pilgrims running along it seven times to replicate Hajar’s search for water.

The Great Mosque was built on the site that encompasses the Zamzam Well and the hills of Safar and Marwah.

The story of Abraham and Hajar is contained in Chapter 21 of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament and it would appear that this was the point at which the House of Abraham divided and from which Christianity and Mohammadism eventually evolved. Muslims believe there is only one God and that Mohammad was his Prophet whereas Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God. It is clear that Abraham is the common denominator to both religions.

As with most religions jealousies arose and Mohammad had to flee from Mecca, which is how he came to be buried in Medina, another Holy City from which non-believers are barred. In most religions divisions have occurred and different factions emerged, causing many disputes and giving rise to some of the problems facing the world today.

Legend has it that after Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, they separated and roamed the world for over two hundred years before the Angel Gabriel descended and led them to each other at a place called Arafat. Visiting Arafat is the last event of the Haj and seen from a distance, the thousands of white tents of the pilgrims camping on the plain is an impressive site.

Having pursued my interest into the story of its creation I would very much have liked to have seen the Great Mosque, but the nearest I came to direct contact with the history of Islam was to actually visit the plain of Arafat, the place of ‘recognition’ or ‘knowing’. On the plain there is a small white obelisk that marks the place where Mohammad gave his last sermon to the faithful and as we were building reservoirs on the plain to improve the water supply to Mecca, I was issued with a permit to allow me to visit the project. I had to be accompanied at all times by an armed guard for an ‘infidel’ roaming around Arafat on his own would be asking for trouble!

Muslims are taught that God created the world in six periods, each period consisting of a number of days and to God, each day was equivalent to 50.000 days of human life. (As an engineer, this seems a more realistic contract period than just ‘six days’!).

During Easter weekends at Ackworth, the Sunday Meeting for Worship provides a wonderful opportunity for quiet thought and reflection. This is an experience I have always enjoyed – if that is the right word – for it is something I don’t seem to do very often these days. Quietly meditating, I sometimes think about other religions in the world and as my research has indicated that Christianity and Islam appear to enjoy a common history, I wonder if a study of other religions would also reveal similar connections? During its early days Quakerism, in common with many other faiths, experienced difficult times but looking around and absorbing the quiet atmosphere of the Meeting House, I can’t help but wonder why some religions seem to breed such violence and extremism. Unlike the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia does not exercise religious tolerance; but does it really matter what your beliefs are just so long as you do not impose them on others? Learning to appreciate that we are not all alike would be a start, and perhaps an understanding of the history of other faiths would help to create greater harmony in this troubled world.

Geoff Banks

May 2007