Image of The northern and northwestern areas designated to be absorbed by the latest Holy Mosque expansion after they were demolished and cleaned up

The Latest Expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram and the Case of Shamiyyah

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
International Islamic University Malaysia

 Image of Shamiyyah was one of the neighborhoods pulled down to make way for the latest Holy Mosque expansion. It lied north and slightly northwest of the Ka’bah, occupying significant segments of the Qu’ayqi’an range of hills. Pictures courtesy of the Omraniyoun Company

(Shamiyyah was one of the neighborhoods pulled down to make way for the latest Holy Mosque expansion. It lied north and slightly northwest of the Ka’bah, occupying significant segments of the Qu’ayqi’an range of hills. Pictures courtesy of the Omraniyoun Company)

The late Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (2005-2015), ordered in 2007 that a massive and unprecedented expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram be undertaken. The on-going expansion covers the Holy Mosque and its surrounding areas starting in the northern side in order to enable it to accommodate around 2.5 million worshippers at one time. In addition to erecting new buildings, King Abdullah’s expansion includes the expansion of the external areas of the Mosque, as well as restrooms, passageways, tunnels, and other ancillary facilities. The service area has also been developed, including the air conditioning and electricity plants and water supply facilities which all serve the needs of the Mosque. Upon its completion, planned in 2020, this latest expansion project will increase the area of the Mosque to approximately one million square meters. When King Abdullah died in January 23, 2015, he was succeeded by King Salman b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Immediately following his investiture, King Salman clearly demonstrated his enthusiasm to carry through his predecessor’s al-Masjid al-Haram’s expansion scheme.

As part of the latest expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram entire neighborhoods on an unprecedented scale were pulled down to make way for planned developments. Admittedly, the government paid high prices for the land, so that the people who lived in those areas could move to newly developed suburbs on the outskirts of the city. As a result, the area that Makkah covers has expanded dramatically. Whole sections of barren, stony wasteland have, in the last few years, become brand-new housing developments and shopping districts. New shopping boulevards on the outskirts of the city contrast sharply with the narrow winding streets near the Holy Mosque.

One of those affected neighborhoods was a Shamiyyah neighborhood. It lied north and slightly northwest of the Ka’bah, occupying significant segments of the Qu’ayqi’an range of hills. It also overlooked the Marwah hillock from the Daylimi hill in the north, which in turn was part of the Qu’ayqi’an hills.

Shamiyyah was a distinguished and prolific neighborhood, more than ever during the first and ensuing periods of the Saudi era. However, on the eve of the evacuation of its citizens, which was followed by its destruction, the Shamiyyah neighborhood had about 1,240 buildings. Many of them were private houses and apartments, some of which were turned into part-time lodging for pilgrims during the pilgrimage season, while others functioned as full-fledged pilgrims’ accommodation. Outside the pilgrimage season, the place had between 18,000 and 20,000 residents, whereas during it, it was packed with approximately 140,000 to 150,000 people. Only 15% of the Shamiyyah permanent population was Saudis; the rest were either residing workers or the country’s non-Saudi permanent residents. It is widely held that Shamiyyah was a neighborhood that for so long was most representative of traditional Makkah (Saudi) in particular domestic architecture, urbanism, culture and lifestyle.

No sooner had the Shamiyyah neighborhood been marked for demolition, than some responsible individuals and institutions hastened to survey and document its architectural heritage before it was everlastingly lost. The main project stakeholder was Omraniyoun, a leading Saudi architectural design company based in Makkah. The Company’s active involvement in the mission was headed by Engineer Mohammed Burhan Saifuddin, the Company’s Chairman of the Council of Management. Omraniyoun was supported and assisted by the Municipality of the City of Holy Makkah; Department of Islamic Architecture, College of Engineering, Ummul Qura University in Makkah; Institute of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for Hajj Research; Supreme Authority for Developing the City of Holy Makkah and its Holy Sites; Darub Company; and Shamiyyah Company. In all, 38 persons participated in the task. They proudly call themselves “the lovers of Makkah” and their work on Shamiyyah has been dedicated first and foremost to all other lovers of the Holy City wherever and whoever they might be.

The objectives of the survey and documentation of Shamiyyah were as follows:

  • Documenting the urban and architectural morphology of an important part (Shamiyyah) of the city of Makkah;
  • Documenting and studying the buildings of the selected areas which posses special architectural and civilizational value;
  • Documenting the building technologies, qualities and components of the (Saudi Arabian) traditional architecture of the 13th AH/ 19th CE century;
  • Examination and documentation of all buildings through photography;
  • Creating a digital library or repository that will contain all the information on the subject and which will be made available to students and researchers;
  • Analyzing and documenting the details and meanings of the language of the (Saudi Arabian) traditional architecture.

The plans of the Omraniyoun Company and its partners for Shamiyyah were indeed lofty and wide-ranging. They in addition planned to study individually those buildings that have most notable architectural and historic value – possibly 52 buildings — measuring and drawing them, and perhaps with some help from historians, conservators and even archeologists, achieve optimum documentation. Other steps relating to history and architecture research methodologies, such as meticulously interviewing the residents, on-site detailed comparisons and analyses regarding the site topography and its building techniques and materials, etc., were also designed.

However, their ambitious strategies were overtaken and cut short by the demolition plans which needed to be carried out as soon as possible so as to pave the way for the latest King Abdullah’s al-Masjid al-Haram expansion. Everyone was taken aback by how fast the events unfolded. Nevertheless, Engineer Mohammed Burhan Saifuddin and other lovers of Makkah and partners in the project, though downhearted that all the estimated objectives of their task have not been completely achieved, are upbeat that they have done more than enough needed to set off a series of academic, research and socio-cultural activities and programs, at home and abroad, that will aim to popularize and immortalize the theme of the Shamiyyah neighborhood and all that it stands for. In the process, it is hoped, an invaluable legacy to posterity could be created. This book titled Appreciating the Architecture of Shamiyyah is a step towards that direction. It is meant to be a contribution to the authentication and dissemination of an aspect of the splendid architectural legacy of the Holy City of Makkah and its Holy Mosque, al-Masjid al-Haram. The author is proud to identify himself as “a lover of Makkah” as well, and be honored to play a small role in attempts towards the realization of the venerable purpose.

Image of The northern and northwestern areas designated to be absorbed by the latest Holy Mosque expansion after they were demolished and cleaned up

(The northern and northwestern areas designated to be absorbed by the latest Holy Mosque expansion after they were demolished and cleaned up.)

The Latest Holy Mosque Expansion between Acceptance and Criticism

Generally, especially as part of the latest Mosque expansion, the Saudis are criticized for speedy and insensitive destruction of Muslim historical sites and their Islamic architectural heritage without taking into consideration the feelings and views neither of professionals and experts nor ordinary people. Their decisions and actions are seen as somewhat impetuous, arbitrary and one-sided, rather than additionally measured, punctilious and collaborative. Most of the prevailing criticism comes from the outside and varies from placid and constructive to callous and derogative. Some of the harshest comments made were those to the effect that Makkah was robbed of its history, that the city was turned into a Makkah-Hattan or a Disneyland, that the city has become anti-historical giving preference to an ultra-modern, materialistic and consumerism predilection and culture instead, that it was increasingly catering to the needs of the superrich at the expense of the average Muslims, and that as a result of the brisk development of the hospitality industry services and facilities abutting the Mosque, the Ka’bah takes no longer central stage in the urban pattern and composition of the city; it now looks as a minute structure “in an ostentatious show of luxury that stands in stark contrast to the piety and history symbolized by the Ka’bah”.

The case of the centuries-old Ottoman porticos inside al-Masjid al-Haram has also for a long time been a case of concern. Saudi decision to demolish them as part of the latest Mosque expansion exercise has drawn the ire of the Turkish authorities. Official appeals have been made, and in-depth discussions at the highest diplomatic levels conducted, so as to keep the porticos — or most of them – rather intact and integrate them into the new design and plan initiatives of the Mosque, but to no avail — despite some initial optimism on both sides. In the end, the porticos were destroyed and their approximate replicas constructed near their original sites in the Mosque.

Irrespective of whether the mentioned and other similar judgments and accusations were sincere, productive and feasible, or signified no more than some old clichés, sentimental flare-ups, or even certain politically inspired sound bites, the case of Shamiyyah, too, is partly implied thereby because it stands for an Islamic historical and architectural heritage that is vanishing at an alarming rate from Makkah’s urban landscape. It is an endless debate, however, whether and how much traditional neighborhoods with their traditional landmarks should give way to colossal Mosque developments and expansions, or if they need to be, if not left alone retained and maintained, then along the exigencies and specifications of each of the preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction acts, be subtly assimilated into new modern architectural development plans and designs which will function as amalgams of the past and the present, of tradition and modernity, and of intrinsic sentimental values and pressing present-day pragmatism and future visions.

Be that as it may, modernity, in the sense of being modern, contemporary and up-to-date, must move on and take its natural course, absorbing tradition and determining in a world of dialectics the latter’s direction and fate. Hence, modernity and tradition are most enduring and at the same time inseparable terrestrial truths. Indeed, the vitality and dynamism of human existence are sustained only by constant interplays between them. According to that paradigm, too, al-Masjid al-Haram had to develop and expand as a response to the development and expansion of the Muslim community worldwide which the Holy Mosque was meant to symbolize and serve. The Mosque’s development and expansions also meant that its own traditional nuances and dimensions, and the traditional nuances and dimensions of its adjacent sites, needed to be revisited from time to time and be significantly impinged upon. Such, furthermore, was a part of sunnatullah (the rules and laws of the Creator according to which His creation unfolds and exists). Thus, the question was never if, but when and how, the growths and expansions of al-Masjid al-Haram will materialize. No wise or insightful person, it follows, will in principle ever criticize the notion of the needed and justifiable Mosque development and expansion, for such an act would be tantamount to voicing an objection to some of the most fundamental laws and principles that govern particularly human existence. Those who are fond of criticizing the expansions, do so only because of their disagreements concerning the ways and systems in accordance with which the inevitable was happening. But one thing is certain: all parties agree on the verity that the best Mosque on earth deserves the best form and function in order to serve the best religion, Islam, and its best followers, Muslims, even though some people’s motives became eventually colored with emotions, personal preferences, elements of socio-cultural relativism, and with hidden political agendas.

Genuine criticism and feelings of unhappiness revolve around the truth that Makkah as a sanctuary and a holy land with the holiest Mosque within its precincts needs to be a standard setter in a myriad of life aspects, including Islamic urbanization and Islamic built environment, taking into account how big and serious a role Islamic spirituality plays in determining and shaping their respective recognizable characters. This is particularly so nowadays because of the cultural and civilizational trials and tribulations which the Muslim world is undergoing. It is now more than ever that Muslims need a sense of guidance and leadership in all spheres of their cultural and civilizational presence, so, Makkah, blessed, exalted and divinely safeguarded as it everlastingly is, connotes an Islamic civilizational locus people inherently look up to. If people’s hearts are attached to it, as the Qur’an explicitly says (Ibrahim, 37), so are their minds, intellectualism and overall physical and metaphysical existence.

Makkah, furthermore, should translate its God-given qualities and features into its civilizational penchant. As a safe and peaceful city (al-balad al-amin), its built environment in particular must echo the spirit of safety and peace insofar as people, the environment and the city’s ecosystems were concerned. That predicates that its built environment should at all times be sustainable and both people and nature-friendly, as well as that the wellbeing of the city’s ecological domain and its extremely limited resources, and the wellbeing of its people, permanent dwellers and temporary visitors and pilgrims alike, are not in any way compromised. In other words, people in their capacity as vicegerents on earth need to form and cherish safe and peaceful relations with all the factions of the web of creation. Doing otherwise connotes some serious spiritual and intellectual disorders with far-reaching corollaries, as a person’s lack of peace and constructive engagements with the natural world and other people indicates lack of peace and of valuable bonds with his own self and his Creator and Master.

That said, it must be reiterated, in particular in the context of the Islamic built environment generally — which is perceived, created and used as part of living a divinely inspired Islamic life paradigm, and which functions both as a catalyst and framework for Muslims’ fulfillment of their noble earthly vicegerency (khilafah) mission — that Islam is a religion that aims to ascertain, uplift and sustain the honor and dignity of man because in Islam, man is God’s vicegerent on earth. Every terrestrial component has been created for the purpose of accommodating and facilitating the realization of man’s splendid mission. Man resides in the center of Islam’s universe. Islam exists because of man; it is meant for him. Man, in turn, exists because of, and for, Islam, to be shown how to live in complete service to his Creator, and to be shown the way to self-assertion and deliverance in both worlds.

It goes without saying that the ultimate objective of the Islamic message is the preservation of a believer and his honor and dignity. This translates into the preservation of his religion, life, lineage, intellect and property. There is nothing on earth that is more inviolable than a believer, his blood, property and honor. There is nothing that supersedes him in importance. Everything on earth exists in order to make possible and then sustain a believer’s lofty position. All things and events play second fiddle to his status. Even holy messengers were sent and revelations revealed for that very purpose. Based on the divine Will and Letter, life systems, ordinances and practices are concocted for this same end as well. Accordingly, cultures and civilizations – as well as the built environment in that it signifies a representation and a corporeal locus of the former — are judged only on the basis of how genuinely they were human honor and dignity-oriented and how much they succeeded in making such enterprise a reality. It was due to all this that the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have communicated to the Ka’bah while circumambulating (tawaf) it: “How pure you are! And how pure is your fragrance! How great you are! And how great is your sanctity! By Him in whose hands lies the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity of a believer is greater with Allah than even your sanctity (i.e., the Ka’bah). That is (the sanctity) of his property, his blood and that we think nothing of him but good” (Sunan Ibn Majah).

A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar, once when he looked at the Ka’bah, reproduced the gist of those Prophet’s words and said to the Ka’bah: “How great you are! And how great is your sanctity! But the sanctity of a believer is greater with Allah than even your sanctity (i.e., the Ka’bah)” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).

The Prophet (pbuh) also said during his farewell pilgrimage in a sermon which denotes a blueprint for every Muslim civilizational awakening: “Verily, your blood, property and honor are sacred to one another (i.e., Muslims) like the sanctity of this day of yours (i.e., the day of Nahr or slaughtering of the animals of sacrifice), in this month of yours (the holy month of Dhul-Hijjah) and in this city of yours (the holy city of Makkah)” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Definitely, it was not by chance that in the above instances the notion of preserving Muslim dignity and honor has been emphasized in the context of the city of Makkah and its two most important components: the Ka’bah (al-Masjid al-Haram) and the plains of ‘Arafat. Hence, it is right in Makkah where the same notion ought to be demonstrated and upheld through multiple aspects of Islamic culture and civilization, above all through the orb of the Islamic built environment. For that reason was expanding al-Masjid al-Haram into the Shamiyyah neighborhood – and some other traditional Makkah neighborhoods — an opportunity to emphatically demonstrate that the authentic Islamic built environment is a realm where peaceful coexistence and relationships between people and their selves, between people and God, and between people and their natural environment is forged, where tradition and modernity are at ease and not locked in conflicts whereby one always makes an attempt to outstrip and repeal the other, and finally where the principal authority and point of reference is the worldview (Weltanschauung), teachings and ethical system of the Islamic message, not people’s individual predilections, nor transitory indigenous or global socio-economic trends.

In an ideal world, the whole process of the Holy Mosque’s latest expansion, involving relocation of people, demolition of what could not be preserved, rehabilitated, restored nor reconstructed, coupled with introduction of genuinely creative plans and designs as well as most up-to-date building technology and engineering, needs moreover to serve as a qiblah or direction, so to speak, in Muslim architectural ambitions and goals. Just as an immense, virtually endless, budget was generously assigned for financing the expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram, the same undertaking similarly needs to characterize a source of incessant architectural originality, sovereignty and vision which will be able to leave a lasting effect not only on the Muslim community, but also on the world at large. Al-Masjid al-Haram should function as a unifying factor for the Muslim ummah in the civilizational enterprises of theirs, just as it is their qiblah and unifying factor in their spiritual matters and activities. Makkah thus have to be transformed into a true “Mother of cities” (Umm al-qura) — as the Qur’an brands it (al-An’am, 92) – and to be truly and at all levels more venerated, inspiring and more guiding than other human settlements. That all cities are to be subordinate to Makkah is a dignified goal towards which all Muslims should strive.

Some additional incentives for collectively trying to realize the above mission and purpose are as follows: the city of Makkah has been made a sanctuary and a holy place the day God created the heavens and the earth and it will remain so by God’s command until the Day of Resurrection; committing sins in Makkah is enormous and doing good deeds procures manifold rewards; Makkah is a place of security and safety not only for humans, but also for all animate and inanimate beings; Makkah is the most beloved piece of the earth to God and, as such, to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) about which he said in the course of hijrah or migration to Madinah that if he had not been driven out of it, he would have never left it; the inability of Anti-Christ or Dajjal, and general impermissibility for non-Muslims, to enter Makkah, which symbolically could also be construed in terms of impermissibility of either innovating Islamically unacceptable cultural and civilizational principles, standards and norms in Makkah, or importing the same into it from outside.

In any case, God purifies, protects and nurtures Makkah, but people, too, must do their part and aim at the same objectives within their terrestrial contexts. If aspects of old traditions and heritage had to go as a result of the obligatory and well-thought-out Mosque expansions, corresponding aspects of new traditions and legacies will be created thereby in the process, which will embody and radiate the essence of Islamic urbanism, planning and architecture as much as the former did. Only this way will justice be done to history and affected tradition, and will modern architectural genres go down well with most people and their Islamic cultural and civilizational benchmarks.

As said earlier, the latest expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram divides opinion more than any other did in the past. Experts’ as well as common people’s standpoints vary from out-and-out support to stern criticism of almost anything pertaining to the nature of the expansion. Between these two almost diametrically opposed to each other attitudes lies a wide range of points of view some of which tend to tilt towards one side of the divide while others do towards the other. However, two things are certain: there is no one in the whole scheme who denounces the expansion per se and the needs that called for it; nor is there virtually anyone who is utterly indifferent to, or neutral in, the ongoing debates that are assuming, unsurprisingly, unprecedented proportions.

As far as the outlook of the Omraniyoun Company and its partners in the Shamiyyah documentation project is concerned, my impression is that it belongs to the camp which reckons that the Holy Mosque expansion, including its scale and magnitude, is rather justifiable. However, more time and more sensitivity were required, and more conscientiousness and dialogue with diverse and worldwide experts, including the general public, were needed when it came to dealing with and ultimately destroying entire traditional neighborhoods and some other places of historic significance which not only the local population, but also all Muslims, had huge stakes in. This is in order that systematic and painstaking research, evaluation and documentation efforts could have been carried out at once by professionals and academics for the purpose of future education, recognition and appreciation of the country’s Islamic built heritage. Since its inception, the project, admittedly, should have been more participative and inclusive, rather than exclusive and controlled, more flexible and fluid, rather than rigid and unbendable, and more heterogeneous, multidimensional and diversified, rather than excessively and fixedly monolithic and homogeneous. Also, more urban planning and architectural creativity and resourcefulness were needed in an attempt to address more effectively various people’s concerns.

Nevertheless, it must also be conceded that as to a great many aspects of all the contentious issues in the Holy Mosque expansion debate, there is extremely little that is definite right or wrong. There is a lot of gray area, along with the matter of personal emotions and preferences, and certain limited historical, cultural and socio-economic interests. Thus, extreme caution, respect, restraint and a sense of moderation ought to be espoused by everyone involved. Such is the state of affairs of the entire expansion exercise that many people’s views and judgments may well amount to the ijtihad category, which is “the independent or original interpretation of problems not precisely covered by the Qur’an, Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances), and ijma’ (scholarly consensus).” Ijtihad thus is putting forth the maximum effort in a process of forming an independent opinion or judgment within the framework of the available texts concerning a life activity. In doing so, if one excels, one receives two rewards from God, but if one for whatever reason, fails to deliver, after he had tried his best, one is bound to receive one reward from God, as explained by the Prophet (pbuh) in one of his traditions (Sahih al-Bukhari). Hence, if permeated with the spirit of true ijtihad, qualified people’s opinions matter and should always be listened to, respected and taken into account. In areas where ijtihad is due there is no absolute right or wrong. Ethics of disagreement, mutual respect and cooperation for a greater cause, therefore, is put on a pedestal. Perhaps, a form of exhaustive collective ijtihad would have been a way forward to a degree of ummatic consensus regarding the latest and grandest expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram. The case needs always be used to unite, not divide, Muslims, and to procure universal goodness, rather than unhappiness and distress, for them.

For example, there is vast disagreement among traditional and contemporary scholars alike as to what exactly is meant by al-Masjid al-Haram in one of the most well-known authentic hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where the extraordinary spiritual significance of the Holy Mosque is referred to. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “One prayer in my Mosque (in Madinah) is better than one thousand prayers elsewhere, except al-Masjid al-Haram, and one prayer in al-Masjid al-Haram is better than one hundred thousand prayers elsewhere” (Sunan Ibn Majah).

There are several opinions with regard to what is meant by al-Masjid al-Haram in which the reward for prayer is multiplied. The most prominent ones are: it is the Ka’bah; it is the Ka’bah and the mosque around it; it is the entire Haram (Makkah sanctuary) and ‘Arafah; it is the Ka’bah and what is within the Hijr or Hatim of the Ka’bah; it is Makkah; it is the entire Haram of the city of Makkah up to the boundaries that separate the outside world from the Haram; it applies to the place where it is forbidden for the person who is junub (ritually impure) to stay.

What’s more, while in Makkah performing the pilgrimage (Hajj), Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have encamped at a place called al-Abtah, a few miles away from the Ka’bah and al-Masjid al-Haram towards Mina (a distant zone of Makkah), in order that his Hajj rituals, which involved several holy sites outside the city of Makkah including Mina, were better facilitated, and “so that it might be easier for him to depart” (Sahih al-Bukhari). He might have come to the Ka’bah and al-Masjid al-Haram only in order to perform those rituals which were directly and indirectly connected with them, such as tawaf (circumambulating the Ka’bah) and sa’y (walking and running between al-Safa and al-Marwah mounds). As such, the Prophet (pbuh) spent a large chunk of his time in Makkah as a pilgrim, and performed a number of his daily prayers, away from the Ka’bah and its Holy Mosque.

So, if people legitimately as a result of ijtihad have different viewpoints on the subjects of the meaning and extent of al-Masjid al-Haram, it likewise is very likely that they will have different views about the ways the Mosque should be expanded and built so as to accommodate as exorbitant a number of visitors and pilgrims as today’s estimations stand for the latest expansion. For some people, for instance, if the scope of the Mosque is the entire city of Makkah, or the boundaries of its sanctuary (haram), the notion of enlargement and expansion then should not concentrate only on the immediate vicinity of the Ka’bah and so, wipe out the physical residues of its centuries-old history and heritage. Rather, planning and construction activities should be wisely and evenly distributed across the distant parameters of the Mosque as the city’s sanctuary (haram) with the aim of elevating severe strains from the heart and focal point of the city.

Others, on the other hand, also legitimately as a result of their own ijtihad, would beg to differ with the former perspective’s proponents, putting forth their own arguments which are neither more nor less convincing than those of the first group. In any case, nobody is to try to monopolize the debate, believing that only he and his camp are right, and everyone else wrong. Instead, the matter could – and should – be used for forging a greater good for the Muslim ummah. Matters pertaining to sheer ijtihad are meant to energize Muslims and broaden their spiritual and intellectual horizons, and not to divide them, nor undermine and fritter away their motivation and capacities.

Image of Some of the renovated traditional Shamiyyah buildings before their demolition

(Some of the renovated traditional Shamiyyah buildings before their demolition.)

Image of More traditional Shamiyyah buildings with projecting mashrabiyyahs or rawashin

(More traditional Shamiyyah buildings with projecting mashrabiyyahs or rawashin.)

To Preserve, or not to Preserve Islamic Traditional Architecture

It is generally said that since architecture is indispensable to life and to man’s fulfillment of his vicegerency mission on earth, it occupies a remarkable place in Islam. It is a collective obligation. However, notwithstanding its significance, Islamic architecture is not an end in itself; it is a means by which another end, embodied in a set of cosmic goals, is to be achieved. Thus, when using and judging an architectural expression, our interactive experiences with it must take into consideration not only what can be seen and felt by the five senses, but also an architecture’s intelligent and spiritual sides which are discernible only by a sixth sense. Architecture is not only to be looked at; it is also — and that is more important — to be experienced, felt and emotionally attached to.

Islamic architecture is thus broadly defined as a type of architecture whose functions and, to a lesser extent, form are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. As such, it facilitates, fosters and stimulates the ‘ibadah (worship) activities of Muslims, which, in turn, account for every moment of their earthly lives. Islamic architecture, it follows, can come into existence only under the aegis of the Islamic perceptions of God, man, nature, life, civilization and the Hereafter. Thus, authentic Islamic architecture would be the facilities and, at the same time, a physical locus of the implementation of the Islamic message. Practically, Islamic architecture represents the religion of Islam that has been translated into reality at the hands of Muslims. It also represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization where the notions of tradition and modernity are relative conceptions.

There is thus a strong relationship between genuine Islamic architecture and a society where it is conceived, produced and utilized. This is so because Islamic architecture signifies a long process where all the phases and aspects are equally important. The Islamic architecture process starts with having a proper understanding and vision which leads to making a right intention. It continues with the planning, designing and building stages, and ends with attaining the net results and how people make use of and benefit from them. Islamic architecture is a fine blend of all these factors which are interwoven with the treads of the ideology, traditions and values of Islam. Similarly, integral to the architectural processes are also local customs, traditions, geography and other numerous micro socio-economic considerations.

Shamiyyah was a neighborhood that for so long, arguably, was most representative of traditional Makkah (Saudi) especially domestic architecture, urbanism, culture and lifestyle. However, the way it has been looked upon and dealt with intellectually, culturally and even spiritually, both by the authorities and ordinary populace, shows that Muslims in general are yet to formulate adequate comprehensive responses to rapid disintegrations and regressions that have been plaguing Islamic homogeneous cultures and civilization ever since the Muslim world was thrust into the uncharted terrains of colonization, westernization and modernity. As integral segments of Islamic culture and civilization, standing in the forefront, Islamic art and architecture were affected perhaps most in the process. A great many unprecedented dilemmas and challenges were thrown up, which the Muslim artistic and innovative mind and spirit, unfortunately, are yet to fully come to terms with, let alone prevail over.

The destroyed architectural legacy of the Shamiyyah neighborhood, without it being allowed — never mind officially directed and coordinated — to be properly documented and studied lays bare the truth that not only in Saudi Arabia, but also across the Muslim world at large, a huge gulf between people and art and architecture exists. It also demonstrates the powerful presence of intellectual and psychological conflicts between modern buildings and modern architectural styles and schools of thought, on the one hand, and rich Islamic history, culture, value system and traditional architectural styles, schools of thought and identity, on the other, and how rife they are.

Some of the additional lessons from the case of the Shamiyyah neighborhood are as follows.

Islamic architecture needs to conceptualize and unambiguously demonstrate in practice a sense of continuity between old and new. No conceptual or real break or discontinuity is to be fostered, marking out different physical and metaphysical divides, understandings and outlooks, as well as worlds of concepts and solutions. Traditional Islamic architecture must be regarded as a central part of Islamic cultural heritage and identity. It is also to be seen as signifying an invaluable Islamic historical record which speaks volumes about how people understood and handled both the distant and recent past challenges. It thus should serve as a source of inspiration, enlightenment and guidance for the present as well as the future. Inasmuch as Islamic traditional architecture is integral to Islamic culture and history, obliterating it would mean obliterating part of Islamic culture, history and identity. To deliberately pour scorn on and undermine it would mean pouring scorn on and undermining part of Islamic culture, history and identity, thus depriving people of precious assets and points of reference in their future community and civilization building processes.

Moreover, preserving and promoting in appropriate forms the spirit of Islamic traditional architecture would mean promoting respect for those who came earlier and created such an architectural heritage, and for those who will come later and be enabled thereby to witness and experience it themselves. It also means self-respect for the present-day generation on account of the following civilization and society-building tenet: in order for one to know and diagnose one’s present state, one must know his past; and for one to be able to chart his future course, one must know both his past and present conditions. Without doubt, this applies as much to the fates of societies as to anything else, whose framework and unmistaken physical language is architecture. The disposition of a present condition in a society owes much to the past conditions that preceded it. Likewise, the disposition of future conditions will always owe much both to the present and past ones and how people attended to them. People who are ignorant about, and indifferent towards, their history and culture are people with a fake identity. They possess no real life orientation, mission and purpose, regularly wavering in some of the most consequential things in life. Their civilizational undertakings, at best, are one-dimensional, myopic and superficial, often serving not their own interests, but the interests of those parties and groups to the rhythm of whose political or economic currents they swing.

The purpose of preserving traditional architecture also encourages current governments to become more sincere and dedicated in their current and future-oriented architectural and general development programs and missions, for they can rest assured that their efforts and investments, too, will not easily become worthless, outmoded and abandoned. Governments will know that their very existence and development activities will become part of a continuous and sustainable way of life and built environment traditions, rather than being singular, disjointed and short-lived phenomena. The whole issue, in fact, is about pioneering and sustaining a built environment culture. It is about investing in the past, so to speak, in order to secure at once the present and the future. It is about taking care of the past in order to be taken care of by the present and especially the future. Governments, therefore, have a chance to contribute significantly to the prospect of placing their own destinies — in terms of boosting and safeguarding their legacies — in their own hands, rather than becoming the victim of their own policies and misdeeds because of a principle that whatever goes around comes around, which means that actions, whether good or bad, will often have consequences for their executor(s).

Similarly, architectural preservation boosts the morale and self-esteem of ordinary citizens. It encourages their useful involvement in available projects and schemes. It gives them a sense of gratification as a result of their fulfilling of their duties and responsibilities towards enlightening and safeguarding the past, recognizing and orienting the present, and towards inspiring and charting their community’s future. Indeed, this is one of the most effective modi operandi for bringing and gluing people together. It could yet represent the core, as well as the unifying factor, of the exigent processes of public participation in architecture.

Indeed, Islam intrinsically has nothing against, or in support of, either tradition or modernity. So dynamic, thorough and all-inclusive is its message that it transcends the boundaries of what people in some relative contexts call tradition and modernity. Muslims who are bidden to epitomize the Islamic message in their words, thoughts and civilizational endeavors are expected to do the same, treating the tradition-versus-modernity dialectic in a different light and from a higher vantage point.

Thus, as asserted throughout the book, Muslims need not have any undue aversion to Islamic tradition because Islam was never a cause of any darkness or ignorance chapters in Muslim history. There were no dark ages in Islamic civilization. Such a thing would be an anomaly in a religion of ultimate light, truth and guidance for humankind as Islam is. On the contrary, Islam was the root-cause of all goodness that originated in Islamic civilization and from which not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims, benefitted. It was only certain Muslims’ recurring misconduct that time after time held up the progression of Islamic civilization, in the end causing it to come to a standstill. The problems thus were never Islam’s, but rather Muslims’. The same holds true for the latest conundrum with regard to the notions of tradition and modernity and what relationship ought to exist between them.

In the same vein, Muslims need not have any unwarranted or worship-like reverence for the modernity crusade spearheaded mainly by Western thought and values because, in essence, conceptually and epistemologically it was so conceived as to correspond to the immediate Western needs created by the Western Middle Ages or Medieval period. It was only later that by means of colonization and westernization drives, modernity came to be perceived and witnessed as a global phenomenon. While its outward manifestations and operations seem customarily innocent and universally appealing, it is the inner philosophical dimensions of modernity, as well as the former’s everyday application entailing a myriad of ethical quandaries – which are often deceptively wrapped up in the wrap of supposed universal values drawn from such spheres of human value as encompass aesthetic preference, social order and overall human traits and endeavor – that prove the biggest impediment to unconditionally recognizing and espousing modernity. Muslim spiritual and intellectual awareness thus ought always to be of such a high level and quality that knowing how far to go, where to stop and what to take, or contribute, and what not, when engaging with various constituents of modernity, should be a comfortably manageable proposition.

Image of Yet more traditional Shamiyyah buildings with mashrabiyyahs or rawashin covering outer façades

(Yet more traditional Shamiyyah buildings with mashrabiyyahs or rawashin covering outer façades.)

Image of It is an endless debate whether and how much traditional neighborhoods with their traditional landmarks should give way to colossal Holy Mosque development and expansion programs. An excavator in action tearing down a Shamiyyah building

(It is an endless debate whether and how much traditional neighborhoods with their traditional landmarks should give way to colossal Holy Mosque development and expansion programs.

An excavator in action tearing down a Shamiyyah building.)

* This article is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book entitled “Appreciating the Architecture of Shamiyyah”. Writing the book is fully sponsored by Omraniyoun, a leading Saudi architectural design company based in Makkah (


One thought on “The Latest Expansion of al-Masjid al-Haram and the Case of Shamiyyah”

  1. One way to preserve and conserve buildings with architectural and historical values is via The Heritage and Antiquities Act. Saudi Arabia has no such Act?
    Even if those buildings had to be pulled down due to reasons like safety (risks of collapsing), the need for more plinth area, higher plot ratios etc. future facades of buildings in that area should retain its Shamiyyah architectural identity via building plans and planning approval or engage in reconstruction exercise but with modern technology and building materials.

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