On September 1 The Independent published a piece by Andrew Johnson detailing plans by the Saudi state to move the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad from the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina to an unmarked grave in the nearby Baqi‘ cemetery as part of an ongoing scheme to expand the mosques of the two holy cities.

The article relies primarily on a summary of an academic study published by the Saudi Authority for the Affairs of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid al-Nabawi that had been provided by Irfan al-Alawi, head of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Contrary to Alawi’s summary, the author of the study did not call for disinterment and reburial of the Prophet, but rather the construction of a wall to separate the Prophet’s tomb from the prayer area and the removal of all decorative motifs from the mosque, thereby preventing undue veneration of the Prophet rather than God. (See pp. 225-226.) Even so, Alawi’s reporting, most recently on the destruction of historical sites in Mecca and Medina, has circulated widely in the Arab, Iranian and Pakistani press, resonating with many Muslims who see the move as evidence of a broad “Wahhabi” assault on Islamic history, popular devotional practices and even the person of the Prophet.

While the Independent article may be exaggerated in its details, the concern for the sanctity of the Prophet’s body, the fear that it could be buried in an unmarked grave, are products not of timeless “Wahhabi” doctrine, but of a much more recent history of state formation in Mecca and Medina. It is worth reflecting on an earlier moment of destruction in Mecca and Medina, which highlights the particular political logic of the Saudi transformation of the urban devotional landscape of these cities and the attention directed at the Prophet’s grave. The armies of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Sa‘ud (d. 1953), the founder of the Saudi state, conquered the cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924 and 1925, respectively. Early the next year, the state systematically destroyed the domed mausoleums of the Mu‘alla cemetery in Mecca and the Baqi‘ cemetery of Medina. Both housed the tombs of the Prophet’s family and companions, but Baqi‘ had been held in special reverence due to the interment there of the Prophet’s daughters, wives, aunts and, in a particularly ornate mausoleum, several of the Shi‘i imams. The graves of Baqi‘ were the object of visitation (ziyara) for both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims, and were especially frequented during the hajj season. The Prophet’s grave in the Masjid al-Nabawi was damaged, but left intact. In all cases, the practice of visitation was vigorously policed by the committees of public virtue to ensure that pilgrims did not pray to the dead or confer on them powers reserved only for God.

But underlying the debate over the (im)permissibility of visiting tombs were two markedly different concepts of death held by a broad community of Muslims, on the one hand, and the scholars of the Saudi state, on the other. The practice of visitation and the direction of invocations and requests to the deceased, both of which were forbidden by the Saudis due to their seeming conferral of divine powers on the dead, were dependent on a particular view of death shared by many Muslim communities that assumed a continuous and affective connection with the living. Members of the South Asian Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama‘a, for example, argued that the prophets, martyrs and even many pious lived on corporeally in the grave, reciting prayers and listening to the entreaties of living Muslims who visited them. Indeed, for many, the dead in the grave could feel physical pain and pleasure, not only that associated with the terrors of the grave, but also that derived from the felicitations (or insults) of the living. In this state of qualified corporeal life, in the realm of barzakh (the state between death and resurrection), the dead could act as mediators between the living believer and God, through the practice of tawassul or intercession.

Contrary to this view, the view of the ‘ulama’ aligned with the Saudis argued that although the prophets’ corpses (including that of the Prophet Muhammad) may not decay in the ground, they were unable to hear the supplications of believers and were incapable of effecting benefit or harm in the living world, powers reserved exclusively for God. Indeed, with the destruction of the tombs at Baqi‘ and the subsequent policing of religious practices by the Saudi committee for public morality, death came to be defined primarily in biological terms. The state of barzakh was understood as pertaining to knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb) and beyond the limits of human understanding. Even the Prophet himself was considered but a corpse in his tomb.

This understanding of the finality of death was not merely a juridical position authorized by the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (or one of “Wahhabi” doctrine), but the result of the formation of a new type of Saudi governance, one that increasingly took the management of biological life (and death) as its target. It is no coincidence that the same year the mausoleums of Baqi‘ were demolished the first Saudi public health authority was established with its headquarters in Mecca and under the direction of the Syrian physician Mahmoud Hamdi. Its primary purpose was to oversee the management of public health and hygiene in the holy cities, especially during the pilgrimage season. The establishment of hospitals, dispensaries and regulations for public sanitation followed, including strict laws for recording and tending to the dead and the dying. That is, beyond regulating the ritual life of Muslims in the holy cities, the nascent Saudi state also targeted the biological lives (and deaths) of its subjects. Moreover, this new politics of life was intimately and inextricably intertwined with the government of religious belief and practice. Care of the body was now to be a common spiritual-governmental exercise overseen by the institutions of the state.

In short, reference to a rigid “Wahhabi” iconoclasm rooted in a literal reading of the Prophetic tradition provides little insight into the events of 1926 or 2014. Rather, we should look at the formation of a common economy of biopolitical and legal/theological power. Most importantly, this means asking how doctrine and the regulation of the body in life and death come together in the everyday practice of government.

The expansion of the Masjid al-Nabawi is after all only one part of a massive urban development plan that calls for the construction of new ring roads, high speed rail, apartments and flats for permanent and seasonal residents, and the expansion of public services in the city. Much of this project, couched in the language of modernization and development, is devoted to the state management of populations — their lives, movement and security. In such an urban landscape, Baqi‘ and the Prophet’s grave will always stand out as sites at which this biopolitical order is brought into question.

How to cite this article:

John M. Willis "Life and Death in the Graves of Mecca and Medina," Middle East Report Online, October 31, 2014.

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