Pathways of Faith

'Mecca' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article describes the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, the destination for Muslim pilgrims. This article is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


A holy site since the beginning of Arab memory of the place, Mecca (Makkah) is the goal of the annual pilgrimage that the Qurʿān (2:196–198) requires every Muslim to perform once in a lifetime. Whatever the surmises regarding the origin of its sanctity, Muslims traced the holiness of its sanctuary back to Adam, who was directed there and built a cubelike house (kaʿbah) directly beneath an identical structure in heaven. Adam's kaʿbah was destroyed in the Flood, but according to the Qurʿān, at a later date Abraham, too, was directed to 

Mecca where he and his son Ishmael raised anew the foundations of the Holy House (2:127). Mecca was taken over by pagans in the generations after Ishmael, and idolatrous practices were introduced there, though without entirely obliterating what the Qurʿān calls the “religion of Abraham” (2:135). In the early fifth century C.E., Ishmael's descendants, themselves now pagans, returned to Mecca under the name of Quraysh and took control of the city. They brought prosperity, probably by associating the Bedouin pilgrimage to the shrine with the opportunity for trade at the local fairs.

Muḥammad was born around 570 C.E. in this Mecca: a town set down in a hot and inhospitable mountain defile, a settlement whose crude mud houses were prey to destructive flash floods during the occasional downpours in the vicinity. And in its midst was the Kaʿbah, a ramshackle construction that the Quraysh rebuilt and roofed during the early manhood of Muḥammad. Around the Kaʿbah was an undefined open space that was regarded as taboo (ḥarām) and in which a great many idols were set up. The Meccans were not sympathetic to Muḥammad's divinely dispensed “warning” of God's impending judgment; indeed, the reaction to his preaching was so hostile that in 622 he was forced to leave his native city and migrate to Medina. It took him eight years to force the Meccan Quraysh into submission. In 630 the Prophet reentered Mecca in triumph, cleansed the sanctuary of its idols, and reinstated the “religion of Abraham” in its pristine vigor. But he did not remain; Medina was now his home.

What Mecca gained in purity, it lost in commercial prosperity; the trade routes of the new Islamic empire did not pass through western Arabia, and the town descended to provincial status. Henceforth its chief resources derived from endowment income, gifts of the faithful to the shrine and its overseers, and the annual pilgrimage (ḥajj). With the seats of imperial power removed elsewhere, Mecca returned to the control of its local aristocracy, now constituted of those who could claim descent from the Prophet through Fāṭimah, the Prophet's daughter, and her husband, ʿAlī. These were the sharīfs; one of them ruled Mecca and the Hejaz (Ḥijāz), with a nod of obeisance toward a distant caliph or sultan, from the tenth century onward.

Mecca participated again in the commercial life of the Islamic empire under the Mamlūks (1250–1517), when trade quickened between Indian and other eastern ports and newly prosperous consumers around the Mediterranean. This eastern trade passed through the Red Sea on its way to Egypt, and Mecca shared in both the wealth and danger of the enterprise, the danger arising from the Portuguese, European newcomers in eastern waters who from their Indian bases had begun to cast covetous eyes upon the Red Sea lands. The task of defending Islam's Holy Land fell to the Ottomans, who had wrested the guardianship of the Hejaz from the Mamlūks in 1517. They were successful: the ports of India remained in the grip of the Portuguese, but the Europeans were turned away from the Red Sea.

Although the center of international Muslim pilgrimage, Mecca was closed early to outsiders, and although non-Muslims were for long periods banned from even entering Arabia, they were increasingly active in the affairs of Mecca in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s cholera appeared in Europe, an occurrence linked to ḥājjīs returning from Mecca; European pressure forced the Ottomans to cooperate in a number of international conferences regulating sanitary conditions in and en route to Mecca. The slave trade, too, which the British in particular opposed, directed European attention toward Mecca, which was still an emporium for African slavers. Finally, increasing numbers of pilgrims were colonial subjects of the British, Dutch, and French, and reports of their mistreatment by the grand sharīf quickly reached the ministries of Europe. By the late nineteenth century, most of the European powers had established consuls in the port city of Jiddah to lodge complaints with the sharīf, some forty-five miles distant in Mecca.

In November 1914, when the Ottomans joined the war against the Allied Powers, the sharīf was Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, and the British were already testing his allegiance to the Turks. Ottoman rule in the Hejaz was neither agreeable nor very profitable for their subjects, and so the sharīf, armed with British encouragement and funding, declared an armed revolt against the Turks in June 1916. Mecca soon fell to the sharīf   's men, and the city became self-governing for the first time since the days of the Prophet. Later, Ḥusayn proclaimed himself king of the Hejaz, and though his ambition to head an independent Arab state in the Fertile Crescent was never fulfilled, he held onto his throne until 1926, when the Hashemite kingdom was brought to an end by Ibn Saʿūd and his Wahhābī “Brethren.”

In 1926 Mecca was still very much a medieval town of narrow streets, crumbling buildings (most of the endowments had long since dried up), and a sterile economy. The Saudis brought relief from the capricious rule of Sharīf Ḥusayn, but it was not until the oil revenues of the 1950s had their effect that the city began to change its face. In 1956-1957 the shrine was greatly enlarged, pilgrimage facilities were improved, and the city underwent rapid growth. Today Mecca is a modern city, though still transformed annually by the pilgrimage, which, in the age of flight, brings enormous numbers of pilgrims to Islam's holiest place.


  • Bianchi, Robert R. Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World. New York, 2004. Contemporary account of the hajj, including ritual, politics, economics, and case studies by country.
  • Burckhardt, John L. Travels in Arabia (1829). Reprint. New York, 1968. A sharp-eyed and judicious anglicized Swiss visitor to Mecca describes the city early in the nineteenth century.
  • Burton, Richard F. A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Meccah (1855). 3d ed. Reprint. New York, 1964. Celebrated British soldier-adventurer makes the pilgrimage in disguise in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Farāhānī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ḥusaynī. A Shiʿite Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1885–1886: The Safarnāmeh of Mirzā Moḥammad Ḥosayn Farāhānī. Edited, translated, and annotated by Hafez Farmayan and Elton L. Daniel. Austin, Tex., 1990. Mecca and the Hejaz through Shīʿī eyes in the late nineteenth century.
  • Firestone, Reuven. Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis. Albany, N.Y., 1990. Muslim traditions on the patriarchal origins of Mecca.
  • Long, David E. The Hajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage.  Albany, N.Y., 1979. Analysis of the effects of the modern pilgrimage on Mecca.
  • Nomachi, Ali Kazuyoshi, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant: The Holiest Cities of Islam. New York, 1997. Historical essay on the Holy Cities with numerous color photographs.
  • Ochsenwald, William. Religion, Society, and the State in Arabia: The Hijaz under Ottoman Control, 1840–1908. Columbus, Ohio, 1984. Detailed analysis of nineteenth-century Ottoman rule of the Holy Cities and the Hejaz.
  • Peters, F. E. Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Collection and analysis of the narrative sources on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca from earliest times to 1925.
  • Peters, F. E. Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Collection and analysis of the narrative sources dealing Mecca and the Hejaz from the earliest times to World War I.
  • Rutter, Eldon. The Holy Cities of Arabia. 2 vols. London and New York, 1928. Eyewitness account of Mecca and the pilgrimage during the first years of Saudi sovereignty.
  • Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs, and Learning of the Moslims of the East-Indian-Archipelago. Translated by J. H. Monahan. Leiden, Netherlands, 1931. Originally published in 1889 as Aus dem heutigen Leben, volume 2 of Mekka. A Dutch Orientalist resident in Mecca describes everyday life there in the 1880s.


Peters, F. E. "Mecca." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #203: 'Mecca' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 17, 2024