COLUMBIA — Mecca. For nearly one billion Muslims worldwide, the city carries with it a deep religious history, a calling to faith in God, or Allah, and a connection to the prophet Muhammad who walked many of the streets that nearly two million pilgrims traverse each year.
Located in western Saudi Arabia, Mecca is the holiest city in Islam as well as the birthplace of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Muslims face toward the city during the five daily prayers. Non-Muslims are barred from entering Mecca.
An intertwined history
Mecca’s significance is rooted in the biblical story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Christians and Jews believe this son to be Isaac; however, in Islam, the son is believed to be Ishmael, and the sacrifice is thought to have taken place at Mecca.
Muslims believe that Ishmael and Abraham built the Ka’bah — also known as the House of God — a large, black, cube-shaped shrine located in the city. In Islam, the shrine is believed to be the first place dedicated to monotheistic prayer. However, over time, the shrine became a site for polytheistic worship.
In 570, the prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca. When he was 40 years old, he began his ministry after the angel Gabriel revealed a divine message to him in a vision. However, because his message clashed with that of Mecca’s citizens, Muhammad was forced to move to Medina in 622.
This event is called the Hegira, and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. At Medina, Muhammad rose to power and, in 630, he brought an army against Mecca and conquered the city of his birth. Upon his return, he removed idols from the Ka’bah and rededicated it to the worship of one God.
After Muhammad’s death, the ruling family who controlled Mecca wielded a great deal of religious and political power in not only the Arabian peninsula but also the Muslim world. Today, the city is controlled by the Saudi family.
A pilgrimage to Mecca, called a hajj, must be completed during a Muslim’s lifetime as fulfillment of the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith, provided the pilgrim is physically and financially able to make the trip. The hajj is tied to pilgrimage rites that Muhammad established, and takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Mecca, which is home to 1.3 million people, continues to base most of its economy on the hajji, or pilgrims, who visit each year.
For more on faith, go to the Missourian’s Faith in Focus blog.