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Mystical Call of Mecca And Haj

Satyabrata Pal

By Ziauddin Sardar
Bloomsbury, London, 2014, pp. 448, £30.00


In 2002, when I took up a posting in London with the Indian High Commis­sion, Ziauddin Sardar, already estab­lished as one of Britain’s leading public in­tellectuals, was one of the most interesting voices in the argument that overshadowed all others, on whether the West, led by the US with the UK in tow, should invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was a voice that raged, inflected with despair, of a prophet in the wilderness calling down a plague on both the houses he belonged to, the ummah, his spiritual home, and the West, to which he had migrated. The West, he said, was culturally arrogant, the regimes of the ummah despotic or bigoted; both were mor­ally bankrupt. It was clear that this was not just an intellectual debate or a matter of poli­tics for him, but a tussle for the soul of the two civilizations that had shaped him, and which were now bringing out the worst in each other. That tension between worlds also runs through this fascinating book on Mecca. In an evocative passage in its opening sections, Ziauddin Sardar describes how ‘The Lure of Mecca’, the title he gives to the first chapter, reeled him in: Our house in Dipalpur, Pakistan, where I was born and spent my infant years, had one tat­tered old calendar on the wall. In fact, it was very likely the only item of decoration in the house. The calendar had a picture—rather gaudy, I now realize—of the Sacred Mosque that stands at the heart of Mecca with its soaring minarets amid the encircling hills. The heart of the Mosque, the centre of the picture, was the Kaaba. The Kaaba drew the eye. It was an abrupt, arresting presence, a simple cuboid structure enveloped by a drapery of gold-embroidered black cloth…. Time has moved on, but the image of the Kaaba on our decorative calendar is fixed, burnt into my memory. Ziauddin Sardar and I are contemporar­ies. Across the subcontinent, where I grew up, our house in Kolkata had a puja room on the terrace, with statuettes of gods and goddesses in metal, stone and terracotta ar­rayed on a plinth, surrounded by framed prints of those in the pantheon who had not been available in three dimensions, and of the holiest shrines. Among these prints was one of ‘a simple cuboid structure ...

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