Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mecca – Dreaming of Dante's Inferno

IT was on the 29th of Ramadan that I had the dream. It woke me up at 4, 06 am exactly, and I could not go back to sleep. It was a disturbing dream, but strangely, I hadn’t woken up in a muck-sweat, my heart pounding with fear.

I was clear-headed and calm, but I definitely needed to think about what my mind’s eye had just seen. There are dreams we remember, and dreams that we don’t – even after we are roused from deep slumber by them. This was one that I was going to remember.

The scholars say that “true dreams” – dreams of ilham, or inspiration – have symbolic relevance. They can only be properly interpreted under strict conditions. A person must have ceremonial ablution before going to sleep; the dream must be before dawn, and the dreamer must be of sound mind – and so on.

Now, I’ve always enjoyed listening to accounts of other people’s dreams – but I’ve never regarded my own as having any grand import. I do not rate myself as being gifted with sights of the great unseen, nor the favour of true dreams. To be honest, if I had a true dream I’d probably die of fright.

Apart from paying little heed to my own sub-cortical activity – psycho-babble for dreaming – my interest in other peoples’ dreamworlds has always been inspired by Ibn Sirin’s approach. If Ibn Sirin – the most celebrated dream-psychologist in Islam – could dismiss most of those who petitioned him, then someone like me had even more reason for caution.

The dreamworld is a jungle of symbols and its path is laid with numerous snares where sometimes the reverse is true, and sometimes isn’t. Therefore, I don’t interpret dreams.

But there are self-explanatory dreams when a specialist does not have to be consulted. For example, a person may be blessed to see a deceased relative, or spiritual adept. If that person is in the Garden of Bliss, they will appear as happy, larger-than-life figures with the glow of youth. They will deliver messages that are clear and unambiguous.

My own dream had a clear and unambiguous message too, but so stark that if I’d seen it unveiled in all its reality, I probably would have had a heart attack. It all started the day before when an old lady whom I love and know well – who has visited Makkah for over 50 years – asked me about the Jabl Omar project in the Holy City.

A travel agent in Makkah had phoned her about the multi-billion dollar scheme – one that will reportedly see 15 million pilgrims (those who will be to afford it, that is) staying in a marble, treeless expanse of Las Vegas-style hotels looming 40 stories over the Haram.

On the drawing board, the scheme is on a scale beyond impressive. Mountains will be moved and almost a whole city razed to the ground. The logistics are stupendous.

But logistics – and the real need to accommodate pilgrims aside – Makkah is still a Haram, a sanctuary that has to be respected. No human being or living thing can be violated within its precincts. Not even a tree should be cut down in the Haram, not a piece of dust of its sacred history disturbed. It is meant to be a place of peace where every believer – rich or poor – can enjoy a safe haven.

The first place of worship on earth was built in Makkah by Adam. It is a city beloved to Ibrahim, who prayed for it, and it was closest to the Prophet’s heart until he was forced, much against his will, to leave it. Makkah is the centre of the spiritual universe, the Ka’bah mirrored in each of the Seven Heavens until it reaches the foot of the Heavenly Throne.

So if I condemn the Jabl Omar project for being crass, I beg forgiveness. Makkah should be a place of beauty, not a centre of rampant materialism as it is threatening to become. Why should Makkah be the domain of the financially privileged and spiritually insensitive?

This is because the future Makkan megapolis stands to exclude the poor (just one night in Ramadan near the Haram in 2012 will set you back over R10, 000) and the very legacy of Islam itself. As I write this, one of the Holy City’s last-remaining historical monuments – Muhammad’s [SAW] birthplace where Asiyah (the wife of the Pharaoh) and Maryam (the mother of Jesus) were his midwives – is under threat of demolition.

With over 300 sacred heritage sites having already been destroyed in Makkah and Madinah by the Wahhabi sect, who dominate religious discourse in Saudi Arabia, this development has been a great boon. This is because in their reductionist Islam, visiting historical sites is shirk, or polytheism. All sacred sites have to be destroyed, just in case we might worship them.

These natives from the Najd region, some of whom the Prophet [SAW] explicitly refused to bless, have dragged Islam from the world back into the desert – the very antithesis of Muhammad’s [SAW] metaphor of co-existence. And so when the “reformist” ideologue, Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, made a familial pact with Ibn Sa’ud in 1747, he sparked the modern era of Islamic extremism.

Today, it looks as if the Wahhabi vendetta against the Prophet’s family, the Bani Hashim, and his Companions in the Holy Cities behind this veil of “progress” is almost complete. The traditional ziyarah – the visit by pilgrims to these heritage sites commemorating the life of the Prophet [SAW] – are now just sad memory.

No such thing as integrated urban planning in the petro-dollar universe of Bani Sa’ud: it’s just demolish and rebuild. No consideration for culture, ecology, or ancient buildings. Dr Sami Angawi, Jeddah architect and environmentalist, quotes a Prophetic Hadith that we should preserve Makkah’s old buildings “for they are the ornaments of the city”. But his is a voice in the wilderness.

For in Makkah, the ornaments – including the old Ottoman fort in the Ajyad district – have all been mindlessly obliterated without as much as a nod to the ummah, the world Muslim community who should really have a say in these matters. Surely the old could have been blended with the new – the past informing the present?

The house of noble Abu Bakr, from where the Prophet [SAW] fled to Madinah, is today the Hilton. The house of Khadijah, the mother of the Prophet’s children, has a public toilet built over it. And, according to Dr ‘Irfan Ahmad al-‘Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, the Jannat ul Ma’la – Makkah’s historic graveyard – has been flooded with effluent.

Another victim has been Hajr’s well of Zamzam. With no meaningful environmental impact studies countenanced by the authorities, indiscriminate blasting and digging has splintered the eye of the well so badly that Zamzam – an Abrahamic spring that has flowed unceasingly for thousands of years – now has to be filtered.

“I didn’t know about the development,” said the old lady, “S…. said that you would know.”

Call it a dream of “connectivity”, if you will, but in the early hours of the 29th of Ramadan I was not experiencing Laylut ul-Qadr, the mystical Night of Power “worth a thousand months” hidden in the last 10 days of Ramadan, but something more resembling Dante’s Inferno.

My dream begins with a friend and myself walking from Bab us-Salam across the mataf towards the Ka’bah. The imagery is not quite right, but my heart tells me it’s the Ka’bah. My first response is one of amazement – I did not expect to be back in Makkah. My second response is anxiety – I’m not in ihram, the two white sheets obligatory for pilgrimage.

There is a clear path to the Ka’bah, something that also amazes me, but a third person – who claims to have performed the Hajj with me, although I don’t recognise him – beckons us towards a ladder leading up to the first level of the Holy Mosque. “You can see the Ka’bah better from up there,” he says.

As we climb the ladder it begins (dream-like) to disintegrate, but we manage to scramble up. As we prepare to pray, I notice that the Haram’s walls have become like a steep, eroded donga. We can’t find a level place anywhere.

A member of our party decides to scout the area towards Bab ul-Fath; maybe we can pray there. But he comes back with strange, disturbing news. People are sitting there, he says, chained to wooden benches. They can’t move or make tawaf around the Ka’bah, and we can’t make salah because they have their goats with them, and they’re covered in their animals’ urine and faeces.

At that moment, I look over the mataf, but I see no marble, no recognisable Ka’bah – even in my imagination. All that I see is a pit of crumbling bricks and walls that have been stripped of all decoration. It is at that point I wake up.

I have since thought long and hard about my dream. Should I reveal it, or should I not? But in retrospect, this dream is not about condemning the Saudis, but more about ourselves. Wahhabis are still Muslims; they are still part of our community – and as such – I think we bear joint responsibility for what is happening in Makkah.

The Jabl Omar project – its megaliths snatching at the sky like the open jaw of a crocodile – is a reflection of what we have become. We have happily, and blindly, embraced a global culture of consumption and mass communication – a culture that is amorally secular, atheist, and ultimately empty. This is the idol of profanity, lacking all values except its own.

Indeed, we have forgotten that a visitor to Makkah is a guest of God; Allah is his host and not an Egyptian hotel manager, Saudi official or travel agent. Makkah, the En-Nobled City, can never be about timeshare, leisure or class status. Makkah is not about consumption or communication, but Divine values that wholly transcend the worldly.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rediscovering Mali and Timbuktu

Mali and its ancient Saharan city, Timbuktu, are the grist of legend. In the European imagination “Timbuktu” was the very symbol of a savage and inaccessible place. Mythologised by 18th century Orientalist writers, usually quoting secondary sources, Timbuktu became Africa’s prime victim of prejudice. In reality, Timbuktu was a well-known destination, and the Sahara a continental highway.

Situated at the northernmost tip of the 4, 000 km long Niger River, Timbuktu was for hundreds of years one of the world’s most intellectually advanced cities. For in the 12th century, when Europeans were struggling to write their names, Timbuktu’s scholars were studying Mathematics, Astronomy, Philosophy, Chemistry, Medicine and the Islamic Sciences.

And in the early 14th century, West African navigators were already exploring the Mississippi River – their arrival on American shores across the “darkness and fog” of the Atlantic Ocean preceding the great Muslim Chinese Admiral, Xheng-He, by a hundred years. Xheng-He himself arrived in the Americas long before Christopher Columbus.

West Africa’s biggest nation-state

Today Mali is West Africa’s biggest nation-state. It straddles the Sahel, a sub-Saharan region stretching 4, 800 kilometres from Senegal to Somalia. Sahel, which means “shore”, is the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is the world’s biggest desert, and growing.

Global warming, resulting in erratic rainfall and severe sandstorms, is causing the more temperate savannah belt south of the Sahel to disappear – scientists report that even the coral reefs of the West Indies are being clogged up with Saharan sand blown up in the intercontinental jet streams.

Over 10,000 years ago the Sahara was well-watered and was resplendent with lush forests, rich grasses and herds of wild animals. In those days the Niger River flowed northeast from the rocky highlands of Guinea into a large inland lake. Another river, fed by the lake, flowed southwards towards the Atlantic and the coastal delta in Nigeria.

As the Sahara began to dry up from about 4,000 BC, and the lake started to evaporate, these rivers joined up to form what is the unique “boomerang” course of the Niger. It is at the tip of this curve extending north into the Sahara desert – called the “Niger bend” – that Timbuktu was built. This made the city a strategic focal point for traders and empire builders alike.

Niger River a causeway

Whilst the Sahara was no obstacle to those who traversed it in caravans from the Horn of Africa and beyond, the Niger River was an important causeway for West African commerce and culture. Archaeologists are only now beginning to discover evidence of high-density urban centres that existed along the Niger’s banks thousands of years ago.

African history cites the existence of three major West African empires: Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Modern Ghana, which is due south of today’s Mali, was already enjoying trade links with Middle-Eastern and European centres at the time of Christ.

With its independent city-states united under one ruler by CE 300, the Ghanaian kings would control the trans-Saharan trade routes for 700 years. These caravans would take 40 days to reach West Africa from Arabia. The chief trading commodities were salt and gold, and they were as precious in their era as gas and oil would be today.

Salt and gold

Salt was extracted from the Sahara in the north and the gold was mined at secret locations in Ghana to the south. Salt was utilised for the preservation and spicing of food and was so valuable it was used as financial currency. Up until Roman times, soldiers and government servants were often paid in salt – hence the term “salary”.

Ghana had contact with Islam as early as the 7th century when Muslim merchants made their way across the desert. Islamic historians record that Islam spread in Africa through cultural exchange and commerce. They write that Islamic influence was so dominant in Ghana that by the 8th century Arabic had become the written language of the local Soninke people.

By the 11th century the long-standing Ghanaian kingdom had begun to disintegrate into smaller groupings as the Almoravids (or Murabitun), the Berber tribes inspired by ‘Abdullah ibn Yasin, a religious teacher and zealous Maliki, established their kingdom from North-West Africa into Spain.

The Mandinka

The Mande people, later known as the Mandinka, broke away from Ghana and it is through them that the ancient Mali Empire rose to prominence. One of their rulers was Sundiata, the legendary “Lion King”, whose rule saw him introducing cotton to Africa. He consolidated the gold-salt trade and established the Mali kingdom, one that extended during his reign across the Sahel for 2,000 kilometres.

From 1200 to 1500 ancient Mali rose to be one of the world’s major economic and cultural powers. At its zenith in the 14th century, Mali’s territories were only smaller than those of Genghis Khan.

The most famous Mali ruler is Mansa Musa, who came to the throne after his uncle, Abu Bakr, did not return from a journey to the America’s. Accompanied by an army and over 100 ships, Abu Bakr sailed over the horizon never to return. Evidence of Abu Bakr’s expedition is that Mandinka customs have been discovered in Brazil.

It was under Mansa Musa that Mali’s cultural life flourished. In cities such as Timbuktu and Jenne universities were established. So renowned were these madrasahs that an Arabian scholar, Abdur-Rahman at-Tamimi, discovered he was not qualified to sit in the company of Timbuktu’s Shaikhs.

Mansa Musa’s famous Hajj

Mansa Musa ruled from 1307 to 1337 and came to the notice of non-African chroniclers when he performed his famous Hajj of 1324. Travelling with a staggering 180 tons of gold (worth billions of rand today), thousands of slaves and hundreds of camels, he depressed the price of gold in Egypt and transformed the economy of the towns he passed through.

On his return from Hajj he brought scholars, libraries and architects back to Mali. At the peak of Mansa’s rule, Timbuktu’s trade in books was third only to the city’s business in gold and salt. In 1353 the famous traveller, Ibn Battutta (himself an African), passed through the region and wrote about it in his “Rihla”.

After Mansa Musa’s death, his heirs struggled to keep his vast kingdom united. It began to fragment until a Songhay strongman, Sunni Ali Ber, conquered Timbuktu in 1464. He hailed from Sokoto in present-day Nigeria. He is cited in the local “tarikhs”, or historical accounts, as the only African ruler to wage 32 wars and win 32 victories.

As an avowed African traditionalist he was not Muslim, but he did develop the army, raise awareness of African culture and pioneer new agricultural techniques. After he passed away in 1492, he was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baro. He was soon overthrown by one of his father’s former generals, Muhammad Toure, who would be known as “Askia the Great”.

Askia Muhammad was a pious Muslim, and he had become concerned at the marginalisation of Mali’s ‘ulama by Sunni Ali Ber and Sunni Baro. Askia Muhammad consolidated his realm, and as Christopher Columbus was sailing across the Atlantic with Arab maps in search of Asia, Africa was enjoying another prosperous era in an Empire now much bigger than Europe.

Songhay Empire

At its peak, the Songhay Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far south as Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Ghanaian and Mali Empires in the east. Askia Muhammad’s policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia.

However, by the late 16th century the Songhay Empire began to decline. A Moroccan army under Pasha Mahmud ibn Zarqun sacked Timbuktu, taking one of its most famous scholars, Ahmad Baba, into captivity. In the 17th century the rise of the European powers, and their opening of the West African sea route, saw the gradual disappearance of the Saharan caravans.

In 1893 the French arrived and by 1898, Mali and much of West Africa – unused to nation-state borders – had become colonised as “French Sudan”. In 1960 Mali achieved independence, but suffered from long periods of political instability and drought. Only in 1992 did the country experience its first truly democratic election.

Today, Mali is a country of great ethnic diversity. In the 20th century it has had to face the daunting trials of military coups, IMF stricture, endemic corruption, modernisation, democratisation, poverty, climate change and diminishing arable land.

South Africa Mali Project

In 2001 South Africa’s President, Thabo Mbeki, conducted an official visit to Mali. It resulted in the “South Africa-Mali Project”, primarily designed at preserving some of Mali’s ancient manuscripts stored at the Ahmad Baba Institute in Timbuktu – but described by University of Cape Town academic, Dr Shamil Jeppie, as far beyond just that.

“For the South African and Malian governments it is also a project of continental and global importance that speaks to the future,” he wrote in “The Meanings of Timbuktu” (an HSRC and CODESIRA publication), adding that the “South Africa-Mali Project” had arisen organically amongst two African states without third-party or international intervention.

And perhaps more significantly, as Dr Jeppie has also noted, Timbuktu will regain its rightful place in history as a centre of paper and books, something giving the final lie to the enduring myth that Africa was always a primeval continent of ignorance.